Play offers options for Jewish teens looking for help

Like any other young women, those who are Jewish are susceptible to the trials of growing up in today's fast-paced society.

That was made quite clear as one by one, the five teenagers in a special East Bay drama performance Sunday took the stage.

The play, "After the Apple — Young Voices from Outside the Garden," didn't stop at pointing out the problems. It also showed that a wealth of help and support for coming-of-age crises exists right within the Jewish community.

The short performance, a joint project of the Jewish Family and Children's Services of the East Bay and the Berkeley Midrasha, was presented at the annual JFCS "Slice of Life" benefit at the Scottish Rite Center in Oakland. Hundreds attended the event, which spotlighted Bay Area dessert chefs and vintners.

"I think there's a myth that young Jewish women don't have problems, because so many are high-achieving and high-functioning," said show director Rebecca Weiner, JFCS teen services coordinator and a drama therapist.

"Also, young women themselves think, `I'm not supposed to have problems.'" As a result, Jewish girls who experience confusion or trauma tend to hide those feelings and separate and isolate themselves from their peers, their families and from the Jewish community, Weiner said.

The remedy, Weiner said, is to offer the kind of support and activities where Jewish girls can feel understood, comfortable and also have some fun. Such is the thrust of the acting troupe, called Lillith's Midrash. At JFCS, Weiner also runs several support groups and workshops for teenagers, younger girls and their families.

Sunday's play, which was first performed in February at a community havdallah, was written by troupe members and Weiner. It features a series of vignettes and monologues on the problems of modern adolescent life — from body image distortions, to acting "cool" in black-draped "Goth" attire, to perfectionism, to identity crises.

A key scene takes place when the girls dress as Jewish grandmothers. In flashbacks, the grandmothers reveal that they too suffered during their very different but equally trying teenage years. In their reflections, the grandmothers also point the way for today's teenagers to reconnect with the Jewish community to help solve their problems.

"I just hope, if there are Jewish teenage girls there (watching the play), that they realize that there are a million different kinds of situations that girls can have, and they're not alone," said Zephira Derblich-Milea, 14, a troupe member who, like several others, is also in Weiner's weekly JFCS support group, "You Go, Girl!

Fellow troupe member Rebecca Harris-Rudolph, 15, said the play was "really fun," especially since her fellow actresses also are good friends and support-group participants. "It's really nice to sit around and talk," Harris-Rudolph said of the support group. "We have a real respect for each other."

Both teen-agers, who are students at Berkeley High School and the Berkeley Midrasha, said Weiner was a key reason for their enjoyment of the drama group and other teenage programs at JFCS.

"Rebecca Weiner is an incredible director," said Derblich-Milea, who has had previous acting experience in summer camp and school plays. "What I love about her is that she listens to everyone and she really respects us. She doesn't make me feel talked down to."

Weiner, 34, who has been with the JFCS for two years, said she loves being able to offer Jewish girls the kinds of group activities she wishes she had when she was growing up.

"What I think is most profound is the message that there is a wonderful infrastructure of support in the Jewish community that girls can turn to for help in making healthy and good decisions, and to reach out to other girls," Weiner said. "They need to know there is a structure set up so that when, as they get older and get bombarded with more stimuli and sexually charged images, they know the support is there.

"I'm just thrilled the JFCS is recognizing the emotional needs of Jewish teenagers, and committing themselves to be there for all teenagers," Weiner said.

This year's "Slice of Life" featured co-chairpersons Mollie Katzen, author of the Moosewood cookbooks, and Cindy Stein, owner of the Sunrise bistro in Walnut Creek. The food offered included an array of delicacies and libations, some prepared with Jewish holiday themes.