Developmentally disabled Hatikvah Players put hope at center stage

Noah, a New York baseball-capped Eli Wieder, is dealing with a couple of problems: an imminent flood and squabbling animals, including a “brontosaurus with an attitude.”

“I don’t want to go into the ark,” says the brontosaurus, played by Wieder’s sister, Robin. “The ark sucks.” Then later, she elbows the other passengers, demanding, “I want a first-class seat.”

Needless to say, trapped on a vessel for 40 days and nights, those on board squabble over what’s for dinner, not to mention who gets to sit where. But the crew makes it through to dry land — and Mount Ararat. Narrator Joey Ferman, 32, makes sure the ark lands on schedule.

Like the characters they play, the actors have found comfort and safety in an ark of sorts, Hatikvah House. Through the efforts of parents and activists in the Jewish community, this group of developmentally disabled adults has landed in an independent-living situation — where they all have rooms of their own in a tidy two-story home in Campbell, bordering San Jose.

The acting group, led by drama therapist Janna Mitchell, will be bringing their talents to the stage Sunday, March 28, at the Saratoga Senior Center.

It’s the sixth annual performance for the seven actors, six of whom are residents of Hatikvah House, which opened in 2000. The acting group is an offshoot of a social program that began in 1991.

“We could see there was talent,” said Sally Wieder, mother of Eli, 33, who wrote the Noah play with some help from her, and Robin, 38. “One of the wonderful things is how people blossomed.”

In addition to the residents, the troupe includes Debbie Johnson, 32, a member of the Hatikvah social group, who lives in her own apartment with her cat, Kianna.

Parents and Jewish community members provide funding for the drama program as well as the house, which is the only Jewish live-in facility for developmentally disabled adults in Northern California.

The residents, who range in age from 22 to 47, make their breakfasts and lunches before heading off to work or a workshop program and then return home to help with dinner and socialize. The house is kosher, and residents sit down together each night at the large wooden refectory table in the dining room.

Upstairs is an exercise room with a large-screen TV, and there are personal computers in nearly all of the bedrooms, most of which are filled with stuffed animals and other mementos.

On the weekends, most of the residents return to their families. But these days, they come back on Sunday afternoons to rehearse at Congregation Sinai in San Jose.

In addition to the Noah play, the group is putting on a motivational skit about confidence-building, à la Tony Robbins; participants get up the courage to “walk on fire.”

Johnson will perform a piano solo; Maya Bareket, 22, who plays the giraffe in the ark number, will sing, and others — including Hillary Wolfe, 33, and Caron Lesnick, 47 — will showcase talents from acting to singing to storytelling to improvisation. Dancer-choreographer Colleen Murphy and Liz Muckley, a drama-therapist intern at the California Institute of Integral Studies, round out the troupe.

“A lot of our work is focused around creating life stories,” improvising from personal experiences, Mitchell said. “Although the group isn’t a therapy group — it’s a theater-performance group — we do focus on celebrating strengths and how to overcome challenges.”

For Bareket, the drama group has been a confidence-builder. “I was shy,” she said, qualifying that by adding, “I was a great singer.”

“Maya is a good singer; her sister is an opera singer,” said Delores Wade, the Hatikvah House manager, adding that several other residents were shy when they moved in and wouldn’t participate in the drama program. Now they all do. And one of the joys of her work is that the residents “teach us as much or more than we teach them. This is the most marvelous job of my life. … I get so much more from them than I can ever give.”

Bareket is also learning. During the day, she volunteers at a preschool. She also attends job-preparation training.

As far as the drama program, Bareket said the residents enjoy writing their own skits. “Every year is different. It’s an adventure. We do more and more stuff each year.”

Eli Wieder, who plays a reluctant firewalker as well as Noah, is studying drama and English literature at Evergreen Valley College. His sister Robin participates in a vocational workshop.

“I don’t want to have to rely on my parents all the time,” Robin emphasized.

Her mother agreed. “It’s really wonderful for Robin because she can be her own person.”

At Hatikvah House — and in the drama group — those involved don’t talk much about disabilities.

“What Janna’s always emphasized with them is their strengths,” said Sally Wieder. “What a fantastic, creative outlook! There’s no place like this in the community.”

There was no other place like Hatikvah House in the community when Sally Wieder, a Saratoga resident, and other parents sought to establish a Jewish facility for developmentally disabled young adults; the nearest facility was in the Seattle area. They approached Sunny Kaplan of Menlo Park, a self-described “professional volunteer” with more than 30 years’ experience in the Jewish community, and skills in organization and fund-raising.

Kaplan thought she would do a short stint as a volunteer consultant. She later became board president.

For a number of reasons, the parents believed a Jewish facility would best enable their children to make the transition to independence — while providing a comfortable home environment.

“Some had had a bar and bat mitzvah, they’re used to observing Jewish holidays at home, they love to sing, they love the art projects using Jewish symbols,” Kaplan said. “Why should they be deprived of all of these things when they’re put into a place where the only symbols they see are Christian ones and the food is never kosher? There should be a place where any Jew could be comfortable and continue to observe being Jewish and all of the joys involved with that.”

One of those joys is performing. Each year, the drama program includes one skit based on a Jewish theme. Past skits have included the stories of Esther and Joseph.

But beyond the nuts-and-bolts of acting — or even of learning about Judaism — there is the opportunity to get on a stage, to share a part of oneself and to stand proud. During a break, Johnson walks over to the piano to play “Sunrise, Sunset,” beaming when a spectator joins in song.

“When they first came in, some were observers,” says Kaplan. “By the second and third year, it was amazing.”

The Hatikvah Players will perform at 2 p.m. Sunday, March 28, at the Saratoga Senior Center, 19655 Allendale Ave., Saratoga. Information: (408) 379-0106.

Janet Silver Ghent
Janet Silver Ghent

Janet Silver Ghent, a retired senior editor at J., is the author of the forthcoming book “Love Atop a Keyboard: A Memoir of Late-life Love” (Mascot Press). She lives in Palo Alto and can be reached at [email protected].