Longtime Jewish Theater Director Deborah Baer Mozes Retiring

Deborah Baer Mozes (Photo by Jeremy Hebbel)

Years ago, Rabbi David Ackerman, then at Tiferet Bet Israel in Blue Bell, sat down with Deborah Baer Mozes to discuss how a theatrical presentation could represent Simchat Torah.

Ackerman wanted to teach the holiday to his Hebrew school students, and Baer Mozes, as usual, had just the performative idea.

That Sunday morning, the 200 or so students would sit in the sanctuary while Baer Mozes’ actors from Theatre Ariel, her salon theater company that puts on Jewish shows, acted out the story of the holiday. As Ackerman recalled, they unrolled the Torah around the outside of the room, and the theater troupe brought to life one story from each of the five books of the Torah.

The kids loved it; the community may have loved it more; and everybody “learned Torah together,” the rabbi said.

“Our continuity as a people is based on telling and retelling our stories,” he added. “That’s what Deborah does.”

Now, though, she will no longer be doing it in the Philadelphia area.

Baer Mozes is retiring from her longtime position as founding artistic director of Theatre Ariel which, for 30-plus years has played to intimate, micro audiences, often of between 25 and 60 people, in synagogues and living rooms on the Main Line. In press releases during its 2021-’22 season, Theatre Ariel described itself as “Pennsylvania’s only professional theatre dedicated to illuminating the social, cultural and spiritual heritage of the Jewish people.”

Since Baer Mozes founded it in 1990, it has lived up to that mission, putting on 90 “world premieres,” according to a more recent press release about the director’s retirement. But now, the woman who started and guided the theater on that mission is “going forth,” as she titled the musical revue that marked her departure on June 13 at the Merion Tribute House.

The director is actually “going forth” to Israel, where she will try to live in Netanya near Tel Aviv. Baer Mozes’ daughter lives in Tel Aviv after making aliyah 13 years ago. The longtime Philly area resident has wanted to make aliyah herself for years. And during the pandemic, as the theater went virtual, she had some time to step back and reflect on when the right moment might arise.

It turned out to be now.

“It’s emotional,” Baer Mozes said. “But I also know that for me it’s the right time.”

But she did not want to leave until she secured her legacy. As Ackerman said, telling Jewish stories is vital to the survival of the people, and Theatre Ariel is the only theater organization in the area dedicated solely to doing so.

Jesse Bernstein (Photo by Aaron Oster)

Its founder did not want that mission to die so, before she departed, she found a successor. Jesse Bernstein is moving up from associate artistic director to artistic director.

Bernstein, a veteran of the film, TV and theater industries, joined Theatre Ariel in 2018 to help it host an international Jewish theater conference, then never left. Baer Mozes called their initial partnership on the conference “a wonderful collaboration.”

Recently, Bernstein mentioned to her that he wanted to be an artistic director at some point. Baer Mozes had not told him that she was considering him as her replacement. But she realized that they were on the same page.

“The more we worked together, the more it seemed right for me that Jesse would take over,” she said.

But Bernstein will have big shoes to fill. Baer Mozes brought this stage to life, and it became her singular devotion, according to several fans and colleagues.

“I’ve never seen anyone more dedicated and devoted to her craft,” said Juliet Spitzer, a Bala Cynwyd resident and founding board member of Theatre Ariel. “When she wasn’t sleeping or socializing, she was working.”

“She’s had a tremendous impact on the Jewish community but also the general community in the Philadelphia area,” added Judy Guzman, a Bala Cynwyd resident and the theater’s co-president.

A Theatre Ariel performance. (Photo by Jordan Cassway)

Since Theatre Ariel is a salon theater, it strips away the bells and whistles of the stage and focuses on the elements that matter: the words, the stories and the characters. All shine through in such a focused and intimate environment.

That was why Ackerman saw the Theatre Ariel shows as a fundamental part of the Jewish religious tradition. They illuminated many different types of Jewish subjects, too, from a Jewish spy in the Civil War to the women of the Torah and the Talmud.

“What I liked, in particular, was that the theatrical pieces told and retold traditional stories in really relevant language,” Ackerman said. “And in a way that enabled participants to really see themselves in those stories.” JE

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