When it commences its 32nd season in October, Theatre Ariel will carry on the legacy of its founding artistic director, Deborah Baer Mozes, who retired after the 2021-’22 season.
And so, when deciding on a theme for the Jewish salon theater’s four shows for 2022-’23, new director Jesse Bernstein did not have to brainstorm for long.
The theme will be legacy, as an email from the theater revealed.
“What do we inherit? What do we leave behind? What do we pass on to the next generation,” it further explained.
But, as Bernstein elaborated, the subject is not just about the Main Line organization continuing the legacy of its founder. It is also a topic that is relevant to Judaism — and specifically to Judaism today.
“What we inherit from the generations before,” he said. “And also, as I was reading scripts, that theme started to emerge.”
Theatre Ariel’s first show of 2022-’23, “We All Fall Down” by Lila Rose Kaplan, is about whether a family’s revitalization of an age-old Jewish tradition, the Passover seder, can bring them closer together. Its next play, “Ancient History” by David Ives, features a couple that eschews labels…until the woman realizes that her Jewish background does mean something to her.
Both of those will premiere for the theater’s intimate crowds in 2022, with two more to follow in the first half of 2023.
In 2022-’23, the theater will continue its legacy of in-person performance. It ended the 2019-’20 season online because of the outbreak of COVID-19. The 2020-’21 schedule played out entirely on Zoom due to the ongoing pandemic and last year’s shows were in person for the first two performances and virtual for the next two.
This year’s plays will all be in person with locations to be determined, Bernstein said. The director, who served as associate director under Baer Mozes, said the theater still had 58 members and an average crowd of between 40 and 60 people for its 2021-’22 performances. Both of those numbers were in line with pre-COVID standards.
“We are very much about the conversation around the show, as well as the reading. We’re looking to create community and dialogue,” Bernstein said. “There is a hunger for that. You can still engage with your Judaism and be entertained.”
Judaism is about continuity, he explained. But in the Jewish community of 5782, that continuity feels uncertain.
Synagogue membership is declining. Many shuls in the Philadelphia area see small crowds for Shabbat services.
Millennials are often unsure about the degree to which they want to affiliate. It’s become a common refrain for local Jews of all ages to say something along the lines of, “I’m not religious, but I do appreciate my Jewish identity.”
But what, exactly, is that identity today?
It’s a question that, like so many in Jewish life, really only leads to many more questions.
“In terms of where we are right now in American Jewry, one of the things that is a question is how do you involve more people? What are the important things we want to pass on? And what are we inheriting that we need to adapt?” Bernstein asked.
And then, he asked some more.
“What are the things that are being forgotten that we want to make sure are not forgotten? What is the value of Jewish culture and ideas and spirituality? How do we cling to that? How do we communicate that? How do we pass that on? That includes both the trauma and the celebratory parts.”
Those are questions that Bernstein is asking not just about modern Jewry but about Theatre Ariel. The director wants to carry on Baer Mozes’ legacy because he believes that Jewish art is a valuable inheritance worth continuing — and ultimately passing on to another generation.
At the same time, much like the average synagogue congregation in 5782, Theatre Ariel’s audience is older. And finding younger members is an ongoing challenge. Bernstein, who is 44, is not sure where they are and how to find them.
The director and the theater’s co-presidents, Marci Wilf and Judy Guzman, are looking into collaborating with venues that are more accessible to younger people, expanding the theater’s social media presence and bringing younger people into the organization and its productions.
“It’s going to be a process,” Bernstein said.
But one well worth undertaking.
“It’s important that our stories are handed down,” Guzman said. JE