Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Drama club for those with special needs

In 2009, a theater company was looking for someone to teach a class in Brooklyn for a very unique group of people. They had tried numerous teachers who had failed with the class, but thought I might be a good fit, saying: “You like challenges, right?” 
I jumped right in, and fell in love with the work, developing my own curriculum and style of teaching to fit the specific needs of the group.  Since then, I have led classes in a number of group homes, community centers and schools with both adults and kids with special needs. Many people ask how I have become so successful with this work, and I truly believe it is mainly because of my personality and partly due to my unique curriculum.
I begin each session by getting to know each student. We use theater games and exercises to learn about each other, and then work together to improvise and discuss plot ideas for a short play. After the first couple of classes, I write an original play for the class, based on their personalities and interests. I strive to create a balanced piece that is both manageable and challenging for the group. The students love the process and are much more invested in the production because they helped create the story. Even though they are excited about the production, some of them have never taken an acting class or performed on a stage in front of an audience.  Stage fright can be difficult to deal with, so I make sure to acknowledge their fears and empower them with words of encouragement and positive energy. I also remind them that I even though I have performed in hundreds of shows, I still get nervous every time I get on stage!
When it is time to start rehearsing the play, we make sure to master the text before we get up on our feet. I teach the same vocal exercises I use in other classes to help develop stage presence, volume and expression. In my recent group, some of the students described me as “tough” or “serious” because I would make everyone participate in each activity, even if they were feeling shy or tired. My directing style is the same for all my classes: I have high expectations for the actors and uphold a “no excuses” atmosphere.  Everyone must participate. For these classes, I sometimes alter the requirements within each activity to fit the needs of each person, making sure they are able to be successful and challenged at the same time. These minor adjustments to the rehearsal process help each student progress at their own pace.
The growth of each student over my recent 8-week program at the Y was amazing. Students started out the session with little or no experience with theater and ended the session with a basic understanding of how to create, rehearse, and present a play. In addition to learning all about theater, students learned skills that will help them thrive in their every day lives. Teamwork, communication, and collaboration are just a few of the skills that students developed in my class. For some students, growth was measured by their ability to memorize lines, speak louder, or improve their facial expressions. For others, simply participating in an activity they thought was too hard at first, was a huge achievement. I am thrilled and challenged by my students, and look forward to the growth of this program!
-Giselle D'Souza, Drama for Adults with Special Needs Coordinator at the Y

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

The Nursery School at the Y wraps up another successful year

Here at the Y, we are proud of what our Nursery School students have accomplished this year. We are so happy for each and every one of them as they start the next stage of their educational journey, some at the most prestigious institutions in New York City. Read below our year-in-review and send-off letter, written by our nursery school director Susan Herman.

Our Y nursery school moving-up ceremony brought a standing-room only crowd of parents, grandparents and extended family members to their feet on Thursday, June 13th as our students walked over the bridge to kindergarten after another fabulous year of preschool at the Y.  After a year of exploring an exciting array of topics such as a study of bridges and buildings, underwater sea creatures, things that fly, animals and dinosaurs and a variety of habitats such as the rain forest, our students sang and danced on the stage amid their own creative decorations and set designs.

Those children who are leaving us will most certainly be missed.  We have enjoyed spending time with them and know that as they are entering the next phase of their academic careers, they have the skills to succeed in kindergarten and in the rest of their schooling.  Our children will be attending such schools as Hunter College Elementary, the Anderson program, Solomon Schechter School, Riverdale Country Day School, Castlebridge, Muscota, Amistad, the Washington Heights Academy, Kinneret Day School, Calhoun, the Elizabeth Morrow School, Teachers College Community School, the Hamilton Heights School and PS 187 and 178.

We have had a year chocked full of experiences, adventures and explorations and we have watched our children grow and develop in so many ways. We made volcanoes, experimented with water and sand, and explored composting and planting in our science areas; we turned our dramatic play areas into a restaurant, a farm house, a medical clinic, a paleontology laboratory and a space station; we learned about the planets and the stars, bridges and buildings, underwater sea creatures, the human body, animals, transportation, things that fly and the life cycle of the butterfly and the chick.  In addition to working with our classroom teaching staff, we sang with Judy, danced with Courtney, celebrated with Cyndi and some of us rode the bus with Julio, stayed for extended day with Karen, Rachel and Angie or came to early-morning drop-off with Marielys and Stephanie.  We cooked and baked, created graphs and took surveys and we made our own constructions using boxes of all different sizes.  We took turns being the weather watcher, schedule reader and the table-setter.  We partnered with Midori and Friends.  Most of all, we made friendships while we worked and played together.

The best part of it all and the most rewarding is the sense of community that was developed here at our nursery school.  There are so many people who have supported our program and have made it so enriching and exciting for our children.  There are many who worked together to support our nursery program throughout this school year including parents, staff, teachers and specialists.

It has been a most rewarding experience working with this year’s Parent Committee whose members have worked endlessly to help support our school whether it was through our Silent Auction and our monthly meetings during which we shared ideas and developed ways to improve the learning experiences for our children.

And our family members, who have helped in countless ways whether it was to participate in a special cooking or art project in the classroom, or to play music and dance with our children, or as a chaperone on a trip or as a healthy snack provider, and in so many other ways, our parents and caregivers have partnered with us to help make this year an enriching one for our children.

- Susan Herman, Nursery School Director at the Y

Monday, June 17, 2013

Sosúa wrap-up

Sosúa May be complete, but people are still talking. Take a look at the link below to see what people have said about Sosúa:


Friday, June 14, 2013

The PJ Library

Written words have power to transport the reader and listener to places they have never before been. These written words, in books and such, afford an indescribable opportunity for experiencing other languages, cultures, and even customs.
Well then, why not transform families by offering an opportunity to taste of Jewish culture? Many families may not have yet found a place to be nurtured via formal Jewish life. Take them on that magic carpet ride that is the written page of a wonderfully written and crafted book.
The Y has joined with the PJ Library and the Harold Grinspoon Foundation to bring their truly serendipitous collections of books and CD's to our Y families at no additional outside cost to the families. The enrollment process couldn't be simpler. Click Here for easy access to our PJ Library home page where you can read more about PJ Library, and sign up for this completely FREE service.
Each collection of books will provide hours of reading, enjoyment, discussion and a wealth of opportunities. Learning about Jewish customs, thoughts, holidays and life lessons will be transmitted via this special experience seemingly effortlessly. Each time a book is read, participants will come away with a fresh and positive approach to Jewish life made possible by the PJ Library.
-Cyndi Rand, Jewish Program Coordinator at the Y
Questions and the PJ Library can be directed to Cyndi crand@ywashhts.org

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

It's showtime! at the Y for adults with special needs

The Y continues to facilitate programming for those with special needs and developmental disabilities. This week, our drama group for adults with developmental disabilities put on an unforgettable show. These talented young men got up on stage in front of a crowd over 50 people to display their skills in improvisation and acting. With the help of the drama director Giselle D'Souza, spectators were dazzled by a showing of drama, comedy, and most of all confidence!

Drama Club encourages adults with intellectual and physical disabilities to experience the thrill of theater while learning skills that will help them thrive in every aspect of their lives. Each semester ends with a public performance. Drama program help students build confidence, improve their communication skills, collaborate with peers, and express their creativity. For more information, please contact Deborah at DKatznelson@ywashhts.org


Monday, June 10, 2013

The Y's After School Program ends off the year with a bang

              With June now upon us with summer vacation, family trips and summer camp, we must now say goodbye to our After School Program 2012-2013. It has been yet another wonderful year of activities, fun and long-lasting relationships. Students and counselors say goodbye as each move on to their respective summer activities until the ASP program reconvenes in the fall.
                On Wednesday June 5th, students, parents, counselors and staff came together for an evening of celebration at the ASP Showcase. The students and counselors put on a fantastic display, giving family and friends a small glimpse of what goes on at the ASP program. The theme of the evening was “This Is Me”, where the children were encouraged to express themselves within their presentations. Staying true to the theme, children wore tie-dye shirts which they created themselves, manifesting true self-expression. Scattered across the room were art projects created by each student as a representation of themselves.
                The evening was broken out into four portions: dance, music, martial arts, and music. Each age group performed a small piece created by the students themselves. The Y’s ASP movement teacher Kristin Kelly had each group express themselves through different forms of dance. The very talented Svetlana Uts prepared musical numbers for the entire program. Our martial arts teacher Mary Malena helped the students develop intricate martial art routines, an impressive display of technique and discipline. Finally, our guitar teacher Micah Burguess led the students in an extraordinary guitar recital. The guitars for the ASP program were made possible by Midori and Friends (http://www.midoriandfriends.org/).
                “This Is Me” was a perfect choice in theme for our ASP program showcase. The Y’s ASP program is the ideal place for students to truly express themselves through creativity. Whether it be the arts, sports, or anything in between, the ASP program continues to be a home for those students who look to take themselves to the next level of skill and expression.

For more information about the Y’s ASP Program, please contact Laura at LSataloff@ywashhts.org


Friday, June 7, 2013


Uptown Manhattan has become a modern center for arts and culture. The newest addition to the Heights’ artistic community is Open Tent Theater Company, founded in January 2013 by Heights residents Giselle D’Souza and Sarah Medved. In mid-June, Open Tent will be presenting  their inaugural production, The Last Night Of Ballyhoo, a comedic and poignant play by Alfred Uhry, the Tony Award-winning playwright of Driving Miss Daisy.

D’Souza and Medved founded Open Tent Theater Company to provide increased opportunities for theatrical expression in the vibrant and diverse uptown community. D’Souza, an experienced performer and teaching artist, says “It can be challenging to be an actor in New York, so I decided it was time to take action and create opportunities for myself with people I enjoy working with.”

Medved, who recently completed her master’s degree in Educational Theatre and English from NYU Steinhardt, where she was able to develop her passion for theater with some of the best in the business, adds, “Another motivation for creating Open Tent was our desire to provide the community with thought-provoking, professional-quality theater events and productions. We named our company ‘Open Tent’ because we want to develop a welcoming and safe community where people of many different backgrounds can work together to create and enjoy theater.”

For their first full-scale production, Open Tent has partnered with the YM/YWHA of Washington Heights & Inwood. “The YM&YWHA of Washington Heights and Inwood is very pleased to be presenting ‘Last Night of Ballyhoo’ by the Open Tent Theater Company” says Deborah Katznelson, Chief Social Services Officer at the Y. “This agency is dedicated to supporting the arts in the community and doing so by providing a venue for performers as well as visual artists to showcase their work. We look forward to seeing all our members and neighbors at the performances.”

This is just the latest instance in Open Tent’s developing partnership with the Y to create theater programming for the community. At the Y’s recent Earth Day celebration, Open Tent hosted a theater-inspired workshop, helping children create props from recycled materials and leading an interactive storytelling performance of Shel Silverstein’s The Giving Tree. Additionally, co-founder Giselle D’Souza runs a weekly theater program at the Y for adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities.

Past and ongoing independent events by Open Tent Theater Company include monthly ‘Improv Slams,’ where improv pros and novices alike come together to learn new techniques and hone their skills, and Open Mic Nights, where a diverse range of performers share their talents. In the future, Open Tent plans to extend their reach by offering additional artistic outlets for local performers with a diverse range of projects including musicals, straight plays, Shakespeare, original works, and special events.  D’Souza’s vision for the group includes creating “theater for the community, producing quality, consistent performances, workshops, and special events throughout the year in Washington Heights.”  Medved adds, “Both Giselle and I are teaching artists, so in the future, we’d love to create an educational wing to offer classes and shows for children and teens.”

The Last Night Of Ballyhoo is a bittersweet romantic comedy set in Atlanta in 1939, on the eve of WWII and the opening night of Gone With The Wind. The story follows the Freitag family as they anxiously prepare for Ballyhoo, the Jewish social event of the Christmas season. But with the arrival of a newcomer from Brooklyn, old rivalries and prejudices flare up like New Years’ fireworks. Alfred Uhry’s Tony Award-winning play examines issues of Jewish identity and intra-ethnic bias in the south, reminding us that sometimes the most deep-seated prejudices can be the hardest to see.

The Last Night Of Ballyhoo will be performed on Thursday, June 13th at 7:30 pm, Sunday, June 16th at 3 pm, and Wednesday, June 19th at 7:30 pm at the YM/YWHA of Inwood & Washington Heights. Directed by Randy Topper and stage managed by Devorah Gabai, it features Bradshaw Call, Miriam Leah Droz, Giselle D’Souza, Ezriel Gelbfish, Rebecca Lopkin, Sarah Medved, and Joshua Saidlower.

For the full show schedule, more information about Open Tent Theater Company, and to purchase advance tickets for The Last Night of Ballyhoo, visit www.OpenTentTheater.com. If you would like to stay informed about future Open Tent events and productions, contact OpenTentTheater@gmail.com or find Open Tent Theater Company on Facebook at www.Facebook.com/OpenTentTheater.

For more information on drama and theater programming at the Y, contact Deborah Katznelson at DKatznelson@ywashhts.org or at (212)-569-6200 ext. 219.

Thursday, June 6, 2013

The Final Curtain call for Sosúa

After 4 years, the revolutionary Sosúa production will put on its final performance.

 In 2010, The YM&YWHA of Washington Heights and Inwood had conceived a plan to bring Jewish and Dominican teens together to celebrate a joint heritage through theater. No one could have predicted what this production was to become.
With a complex history as the starting point and funding from a UJA-Federation grant, the Y created “Sosúa: Dare to Dance Together”, an original theatrical production directed and scored by award-winning director and writer Liz Swados, and performed by Jewish and Dominican teens from the Washington Heights community. “Sosúa: Dare to Dance Together” tells the true story of 800 Jewish refugees who fled WWII Europe in 1938 to settle in the town of Sosúa, Dominican Republic. The teen actors researched the history, discussed the issues raised by the story – racism, abuse and suffering, tolerance and acceptance – and interwove the historical facts with their own experiences, allowing them to understand difficult and poignant issues through a personal context. “The play is a shining example of how we can work together as both producers in the drama of life and actor-participants in it as well,” said Victoria Neznansky, Chief Program Officer of the Washington Heights Y, and executive producer of the play.
The initial purpose of the Sosúa project was to strengthen the community by fostering communication between the Dominican and Jewish populations. The entire production process was documented in the film “Sosúa: Make a Better World”, created by Peter Miller and Renee Silverman.  The film reveals the moving journey of how the students were personally transformed by a historical story of courage, survival, freedom and friendship. Commenting in the film footage, Liz Swados says, “We cannot afford to underestimate our children.” The Sosúa Project is a testament to how much we can learn from our youth when they have the opportunity to become leaders and spokespersons.
Martin Englisher, executive director of the Y added that the play “has become a replicable model for other communities in New York City and beyond in that it conveys a message of tolerance and understanding and people working together.” Martin suggested that the play and the film could be used as educational tools, such as using it to create school curriculum.
The play has gained serious traction and attention, performing at venues such as National Museum of Jewish History, Columbia University Medical Center, Museum of Jewish Heritage, Queens College, and the United Nations in New York City.
Although the essence of the play is the telling of the story of WWII refugees, it also includes comments set in the present day. Neznansky explained that the Dominican and Jewish Teens wrote much of the content themselves, about the role of family and the need for working together with others.
On the night of June 6th, The United Palace of Cultural Arts in Washington Heights will host an evening dedicated to Sosúa. This highly anticipated event will bring together the play “Sosúa: Dare to Dance Together”, and the accompanying documentary film “Sosúa: Make a Better World” in an evening of celebrating diversity. This will be the final live performance of the play by the teens at the Y. To conclude the evening, there will be a special Q&A session with play and film producers, and Sosúa alumni from past productions. This event is free for the public and a highly relevant program for teachers, students, and families alike. The beautiful United Palace in Washington Heights was built in 1930. It was preserved to stand as a center for culture, arts, and community in northern Manhattan. In recent years the Palace has hosted top acts from New York and around the world, and been used for commercial, television, and movie shoots.
"Celebrating Sosúa in Theater and Film” Will take place on June 6th at The United Palace of Cultural Arts in Washington Heights (4140 Broadway & W. 175th) from 7PM-9PM. RSVP is required. To RSVP, or more information please visit HTTP://UNITEDPALACE.ORG/INDEX.PHP/EVENTS/233-THE-STORY-OF-SOSUA-IN-MUSIC-AND-FILM. For more information on Sosúa, contact Victoria at VNEZNANSKY@YWASHHTS.ORG or at (212)-569-6200 ext. 204.

Volunteer Recognition Ceremony At The UJA- Federation Of New York

From left to right: Marc Utay, Rita Rosenthal, and Pattie Cippi Harte of the YM & YWHA of Washington Heights & Inwood, who nominated Rosenthal for the award.
New York often feels pervaded by a culture of busyness: people working, going to school, making art, raising families, going out for dinner, walking their dogs. So it’s inspiring to see a group of people who have given so much of their time to helping others through volunteering. To recognize these individuals and the work they do, UJA-Federation held a Volunteer Recognition Ceremony on April 22nd as part of National Volunteer Appreciation Week.
Staff from UJA-Federation’s network of agencies nominated outstanding volunteers to be honored, and this year 34 volunteers were chosen. “This group of honorees represents thousands of hours of service and many more lives touched, and your accomplishments have not gone unnoticed,” said Marc Utay, chair of UJA-Federation’s Volunteer & Leadership Development Division, addressing the volunteers.
One of them, Rita Rosenthal, is 102 years old, and she has been volunteering at the YM & YWHA of Washington Heights & Inwood, a UJA-Federation beneficiary agency, for nearly three decades. After retiring from the small custom jewelry business she had run with her husband, Rosenthal bumped into a neighbor who needed help getting to and from the Y. She started helping her attend lectures and was soon volunteering five days a week and even served on the board.
“I enjoy, number one: to be useful to an organization, and number two: the friendliness. I’ve met many people and even friendships have developed,” she says. “I enjoy doing it and I’m very, very happy and thankful that I can still do something [to help].”
While many people have more time to volunteer after they retire, Simone Carvalho, volunteer department assistant manager at Metropolitan Council on Jewish Poverty, says that the organization, a UJA-Federation beneficiary agency that works with more than 1,000 volunteers a year, sees all kinds of people looking to lend a hand.
Anyone Can Volunteer
“We get a lot of families, kids, professionals, retirees. We never say ‘no’ so we have a really diverse volunteer base,” she says. “I think [volunteers are] an invaluable resource that people don’t take advantage of enough.”
Karim Lopez, who volunteers at the Jewish Board of Family and Children’s Services also explained why she donates her time taking troubled youngsters on field trips to museums and art workshops. “I think it’s great to give money but it is more meaningful for kids when you take the time to talk to them, show them that you care and that you enjoy being with them,” Lopez says.
Alisa R. Doctoroff, chair of UJA-Federation’s board; Alisa Rubin Kurshan, senior vice president for Strategic Planning and Organizational Resources; and Roberta Marcus Leiner, UJA-Federation’s senior vice president for Agency Relations, also thanked the volunteers for their service and dedication.
At 102 years old, Rita Rosenthal is an exceptional volunteer at the Y . Working with the agency for decades, Rita had to reduce her volunteer service to 500 hours per year, now that she is more than a century old. The Y still relies on Rita to perform crucial administrative tasks for the Center for Adults Living Well @the Y. By managing membership data, coordinating special events, and performing many other duties, she contributes to the welfare of her fellow seniors. Our entire community appreciates Rita's sheer determination and concern.
Congratulations, dear Rita!
The article is a courtesy of the UJA-Federation of New York
Photography by the UJA-Federation of New York