By Pam Hersh
I felt sad and numb – like I was living on the set of one of Shakespeare’s grim tragedies and in no mood to celebrate the Jewish New Year, which is supposed to be a time of hope, renewal and reflection. The world was a stage of deadly fires, deadly social injustice, a deadly pandemic killing nearly one million people throughout the world and leaving millions hungry, homeless and jobless, and the deadly political dysfunction exacerbated by the death of the Supreme Court legend Ruth Bader Ginsburg on the first night of Rosh Hashanah.
What could possibly inspire me and break through the cloud of hopelessness that had enveloped me? A rabbi’s sermon? A prayer? A song?
For me, the mood transformation occurred when the curtain went up, actually the Zoom camera was activated, on an incredible production from a group of McCarter Theatre entertainment professionals led by Resident Stage Manager Cheryl Mintz.
With McCarter dark because of COVID-19, a talented McCarter team including Cheryl, plus Stage Manager Alison Cote, Video Producer Seth Mellman, and IT Manager Perry Jones (all Princeton residents) approached the High Holidays services at the Jewish Center of Princeton as a theatrical production.
Cheryl, who has worked at McCarter for 29 seasons, served as virtual event line producer, director, production stage manager and calling the show for five events: Rosh Hashanah First Day, Rosh Hashanah Second Day, Kol Nidre, Yom Kippur and Neila.
Working with her team, she coordinated and directed the filming of Torah services and service excerpts involving over 80 individual participants filmed in a socially distant manner and edited together to create the segments. Zoomed-in participants from the community created the virtual moments of being together during the holidays. For this High Holy Days production, Seth Mellman served as director of photography/editor/videographer, Alison Cote was floor manager/production coordinator, and Perry Jones was the information technology manager.
“We are approaching this artistically like a production, while we meet the religious needs of The Jewish Center of Princeton’s leaders, board and committee. It’s been a fascinating experience,” Cheryl said. “With the theater industry shuttered, this project has been a most surprising pivot, stretch, and deeply fulfilling experience.”
Cheryl has been a member of The Jewish Center of Princeton for 11 years, with her involvement centering on her son’s religious-education journey. The Jewish Center Board and High Holiday Committee reached out to her in late June to see if she would work with them on creating a virtual High Holidays experience that would connect with the Jewish community in a meaningful and memorable way.
“The committee of 12, led by Judi Fleitman, brought to the table a deep history with the organization and superb religious knowledge to shape the content. I looked at them as the ‘playwrights and dramaturgs’ of the content we were presenting,” Cheryl said. She recently had the invaluable experience of producing an emotionally gratifying virtual event, when she served as the virtual line producer and director for McCarter Theatre’s celebration of Emily Mann’s 30 years as McCarter’s artistic director. “I was able to envision a way to make the goals of The Jewish Center happen and raise them up artistically using techniques similar to what I had used for the Emily Mann celebration,” she said.
The live-streamed events artfully combined professional live shots of the religious leaders of the services and live Zoomed-in participation from community members with pre-recorded segments and pre-recorded montages, and music. Cheryl coordinated and directed the filming of Torah services and service excerpts that involved over 85 individual participants filmed in a socially distant manner and then edited together the different parts to create the whole. The goal was to create the virtual moment as close to the reality of praying next to one another during the holidays.
Cheryl had no problem attracting such a talented and nationally renowned professional team because she has worked with all of them for decades at McCarter. “We have found we have an emerging cottage industry here in Princeton! We are pushing the limits of Zoom webinar in creative ways … we are not a television network,” she said.
Every Zoom participant had a one-hour “virtual rehearsal” with Cheryl and her teammate Allison to make sure the individuals would present in the best possible way from their home stages. The production team lost numerous key days of filming, because of the power outage in Princeton in August.
“Things will happen that are unplanned, but we hope that we brought the services into our community’s homes in a way that is uniquely Princeton Jewish Center,” she said.
Contemplating the future of a virtual religious outreach events post pandemic, Cheryl acknowledged she had mixed feelings. “I am on the fence here. As a theater maker I want to see the return of audiences, gathering together to experience a live performance. The uniqueness of the experience is only happening for them in that moment of time. And I feel the same way with services. A religious organization is not a building or website, but the community when it comes together to create the moment.”
Having declared her bias in favor of in-person religious celebration, however, Cheryl acknowledged that she would like to see the streaming of weekly services lifted in presentation. “They are valuable for those who are unable to come to the synagogue, congregants who are traveling, and students who are away at university and want to stay connected to TJC, and to widen the reach of our services beyond our community.”
For me, the appreciation of this virtual religious production goes beyond the personal and communal religious experience. Just the fact that Cheryl and her colleagues managed to put the experience on stage via Zoom with such commitment was enough to give me hope that in the upcoming year, I should persevere and work towards a more joyful next act.
As Rabbi Elliot Schoenberg spoke about on Rosh Hashana, “We chose Tikva, Hope, there is always hope. Shanah Tovah. May we all be inscribed for a better year, a sweet year. A Year of Hope.”