Peter Panstein wont be going to camp, but his creator will be

Deborah Heimowitz, 19, penned four Jewish plays based on popular secular works, giving them such whimsical titles as "The Wizard of Oy" and "Peter Panstein."

She wrote them for Congregation Beth Emek's drama program, which she created at her Castro Valley synagogue when she was only 14.

This summer, Heimowitz will again combine her love of Judaism and theater as the Steven Spielberg Righteous Persons Foundation theatrical fellow at Camp Wise, which serves youth from the Cleveland area.

But she does not plan to resurrect the bat mitzvah student Dorothy for a trek down Alef Bet Road to OyVeyVille at Camp Wise. And Peter Panstein will not be rescuing campers this summer from the horrible Never Learn Hebrew Land.

"Those plays were written specifically for the classes at my temple, where there were about 25 kids," said Heimowitz, who lives in Castro Valley. "At camp there will be 250 per session and I'll probably have different lesson plans for each age group."

Heimowitz and another local fellow, Benjamin Pither of Santa Rosa, are two of 12 theater fellows nationwide who will apply their skills at Jewish camps this summer. They will use games, exercises and performances based on Jewish texts, themes, literature and music to enlighten kids about Judaism.

Pither, 20, will "carry on the torch" at Camp Swig in Saratoga, where his mother filled a similar spot as the drama specialist for the last 15 years.

A theater major at Brandeis University, he hopes to become an actor. He has been involved in both community and professional theater since he was a child and has formerly taught drama at Camp Newman in Santa Rosa.

But this summer at Swig "will be more collaborative and sophisticated," Pither said.

"I plan to really work with the kids to create Jewish theater instead of creating it for them. I also want them to see what it's like to study theater as a craft instead of just as a hobby."

Even though Pither has taught drama at Jewish camps before, he said he always felt as if he led a double life. One involved his love of theater, the other his love of Judaism.

He never thought the two could truly meet and marry successfully.

But after participating in a recent weeklong training session provided for the fellows in Georgia, he said it became clear that "it really is possible to be a Jewish artist, and in doing so you're being truer to yourself. Jewish theater is not only very simple to make but it's inherently a ceremony."

For instance, during the training seminar, fellows learned about "Storah Telling," in which text of the Torah is turned into theater. Another exercise involved the chanting and enactment of words from the Amidah, the central standing prayer of the service.

Pither hopes his campers will also see this "innate spirituality" and in the process "develop both a love and respect for theater, and a love and respect for Judaism."

And what better place is there for kids to develop love and respect for Judaism than at summer camp?

"Judaism is something that can get redundant for kids," explained Heimowitz, a former Swig camper and day camp counselor. "It seems so old and removed from their lives. This adds a new, fun dimension."

Besides, she said, theater boosts kids' self-esteem and makes them feel good.

"Performing gave me a lot of confidence when I was younger — I hope it will do that for them too," said Heimowitz, a film studies major and dramatic arts minor who will transfer in the fall to U.C. Berkeley from U.C. Santa Barbara.

"If they start associating theater with Judaism, they'll start associating the good feelings of theater with it too."

Pither agreed. "To me, theater is really inspiring, and by combining it with Judaism ,it makes Judaism inspiring too."

Heimowitz's career goal is to make educational films or television programs "with positive moral values" for children, so this fellowship "is right up my alley."

In addition to doing theatrical exercises and playing games, she hopes to engage the kids in at least one big original Jewish musical per session, in which every kid has an equal part.

"I hope that this will inspire them," she said. "I want them to wake up every day excited to learn about Judaism through drama, and even write home to their parents about it."