When Amy Guterson was growing up in an Orthodox Jewish household, she faced a difficult dilemma: how to reconcile her passion and talent for theater arts within the boundaries that shape the lifestyle of an Orthodox Jewish woman.
She found those boundaries — which precluded performing for males, and performing on the Sabbath — difficult to bridge.
She was forced to make a choice, and soon put ritual observance on a backburner to pursue a career off-Broadway, finding “there were no role models of Orthodox Jewish women doing theater,” she said.
Now, after having returned to Orthodoxy — joining the Chassidic Pittsburgh community — Guterson hopes to change the game for artistic, young Jewish women with the establishment of Tzohar Seminary, a post-high school program that will enable girls to integrate their creative talents with their Judaism.
Tzohar, which is the first program of its kind in the United States, will be based in Squirrel Hill, initially under the 501c3 of Chabad of Western PA. Classes will begin in September. The school will be housed on Forbes Avenue in space provided by Young People’s Synagogue.
Guterson, who served as the artistic director of Pittsburgh’s Jewish women’s theater group Kol Isha, believes that artistic talents should not be wasted, and it is important for Jews to find a way to express themselves creatively while not losing sight of their spirituality.
“We have been underutilizing our artistic talents as an expression of Judaism,” Guterson said.
“If we have these God-given talents, obviously they need to be developed,” she continued. “They are coming from a higher source. Shouldn’t they be used, rather than restricted? And if we have this struggle between creating art and Torah observance, it’s meant to be dealt with and not ignored. The art we create needs to embrace both creativity, and our boundaries. Within the boundaries, we have the freedom to create something new.”
Tzohar, says Guterson, will be a “kosher” place for Jewish, post-high schoolgirls to develop their “God-given talents” in writing, the visual arts, music, dance, theater and filmmaking.
Although the new seminary will provide creative outlets for individual growth, Guterson believes it will also serve a higher purpose. “If one is given a talent,” she said, “she should be utilizing it for the good of the world.”
To that end, Tzohar students will be trained to use their talents to express their studies of Jewish texts, and will give back to the community by teaching arts classes in Pittsburgh day schools, and by using a “Judaism-through-the-arts” approach in teaching history, ritual, culture and community in synagogue religious school programs. They will enhance Jewish education as they develop new methods to teach Jewish ideas through art.
“I am hoping this creativity will be infused throughout the denominations in many different ways, and in many different places,” Guterson said.
Performances will be held for the community, and art installations will be developed, all based on Jewish teachings, centering on Chassidism.
“The school will focus on Judaism in general, but I feel Chassidus has an existential, universal quality that really lends itself to the arts,” Guterson said. “I’m completely focused on this being an expression of Judaism in a very deep way.”
Thirteen young women from all over the country have already registered for the 2011-2012 school year at Tzohar, according to Guterson. This will be the first opportunity for some of them to develop their artistic sides.
“For many of these extremely talented girls, they are just bursting to use their creativity,” Guterson said.
Rochel Samuels, a twenty-year-old from Milwaukee, can hardly wait to start the Tzohar program.
“I’m ecstatic,” she said. “It’s basically a full package of all these random things I want to do in one place. It’s hard to do these things — dancing, music, acting — when you are in the frum world. The point is having fun doing what you want to do while helping the community.”
The Tzohar seminary aims to fill a void that has been long pervasive in the Chassidic community, according to Rabbi Aaron Herman, the seminary’s principal.
“Integrating Jewish themes into the arts is one of the areas that has been underrepresented,” Herman said. “This will be a unique opportunity to integrate Judaic content with artistic expression. I think it will make a huge impact on the Jewish world in general, and I think it will be replicated in the boys world eventually.”
For more information about the Tzohar Seminary, or to become a sponsor of the school, go to http://tzoharseminary.com/tzoharseminary.com.
(Toby Tabachnick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)