Celebrated Jewish thinker Mordecai Kaplan, whose philosophy helped shape American Jewish University (AJU), once wrote that one of the most powerful ways to bond a community is through the performing arts.
“People of the most divergent views and modes of living can discover their common humanity and their common cultural heritage” through shared appreciation of the arts, Kaplan said.
Leaders of AJU’s Whizin Center for Continuing Education have taken Kaplan’s words to heart. With a grant from donors David and Rose Dortort, the center more than a decade ago created the Dortort Program for the Arts, an annual series of live musical and theater performances held at AJU’s Los Angeles and Simi Valley campuses.
Each year, the program features an array of theatrical programs, comedic acts, lectures with recognized film and television personalities, and musical concerts in both Hebrew and English. The idea, organizers say, is to bring Los Angeles’ diverse Jewish population together to laugh, learn and form stronger connections.
“Theater is a great medium to express opinions, to point to topics that need to be discussed within the community and start many useful conversations,” said Whizin Center dean Gady Levy, who runs the program. “Film, theater, lectures — they really open peoples’ minds to different topics and different ways of thought.”
But they also serve a lighter purpose, too — simply getting people together in a room to kibitz and enjoy each other’s company.
“We go to the theater for fun,” Levy said. “People go to see a program, and whether or not the performance has to do with Jewish themes, it really allows people to just come and socialize with others in the Jewish community.”
Highlights of this year’s series include a staged reading of the Richard Rodgers musical, “Two by Two,” with Jason Alexander; “Roslyn Kind Live,” a concert with Barbra Streisand’s sister; Emmy-award winning team Renée Taylor and Joe Bologna in the comedy, “If You Ever Leave Me, I’m Going With You”; and a Chanukah concert with Israeli singer Miri Aloni.
The schedule also marks the return of an act that has become an annual staple of the Dortort lineup, “Capitol Steps.” The well-known musical comedy group features former congressional staffers who satirize current political issues through song and dance, and their performances regularly sell out, Levy said.
In previous years, the Dortort schedule has also featured actors Ben Stein, Carl Reiner and Ed Asner, talk show host Larry King, songwriters Alan and Marilyn Bergman, musician Michael Feinstein and the Second City improv comedy group.
But appreciation for the arts at Whizin isn’t limited to sitting in the audience — the center also offers a range of classes in the visual arts and dance for adults looking to tap into their creative sides.
Courses in painting (oil, acrylic and watercolor), figure drawing, ceramics, clay sculpture and stone carving are popular with adults ages 40 and up, as well as classes in Israeli dance and yoga, Levy said.
Art instructor Susan Gesundheit said she teaches between 10 and 15 students in her figure drawing and watercolor painting classes. Participants give many reasons for signing up.
“Some have never drawn before and want to explore their creativity,” Gesundheit said, while others want to expand on previous classes they’ve taken. “They like the learning environment. It’s very social — they get to work with other artists, and they absorb each other’s energy. It’s very stimulating.”
Every spring, Whizin’s art department holds a student art showcase on campus. For a nominal fee, students can display one or two pieces of work for the general public. All the work is on sale, and participants take home 100 percent of the proceeds. Usually, 50 to 60 pieces are featured each year during the two-week event, and the students’ work sells well, Gesundheit said.
With about 60 students in visual arts classes each semester, Gesundheit said there’s always room for more — no matter an artist’s age. “If you can move, you can join in,” she said.
For more information on the Whizin Center for Continuing Education Arts programs, call (310) 440-1246 or visit ajula.edu.