June 25, 2024
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June 25, 2024
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Yavneh Academy’s Eighth-Grade Holocaust Play Goes Online

In mid-March, the prospect of going forward with Yavneh’s annual eighth-grade Holocaust production seemed dismal. The school was closed and the students separated. But the administration and especially the devoted team that has been producing the play that has become the iconic graduating event for the past 25 years were determined not to disappoint the students, their families or the community who look forward to this production annually.

Enter Adam Bromberg, a 2015 graduate of Yavneh and 2019 graduate of Yeshivat Frisch, whose gap year at Eretz HaTzvi in Israel was cut short. Soon after returning home to New Milford, he received a call from Yavneh asking him to help out with an online daglanut ceremony, the seventh-grade girls flag-waving program held on Yom Ha’atzmaut. The rest is a good history.

Bromberg was recruited by Rabbi Shmuel Burstein, producer, and Dominique Cieri, writer, editor and director of the production, to come aboard and make it happen. At the beginning of May, with barely five weeks left until the performance, the eighth-grade students at Yavneh Academy pulled together to present “Visas for Life: The Sugihara Story.”

Rabbi Shmuel Burstein, rebbe and Jewish history instructor at Yavneh, had worked closely with Rabbi Marvin Tokayer, author of “The Fugu Plan,’’ the riveting account of Chiune Sugihara, the Japanese consul whom Tokayer knew personally from his 10 years serving as rabbi in Southeast Asia. Burstein was determined to bring the inspirational story of this Righteous Among the Nations to Yavneh as his 19th Holocaust production. The Sugihara story takes place in July of 1940, when hundreds of Polish Jews gathered outside the Japanese consulate in Kaunus, Lithuania, where they had fled from the encroaching German onslaught on their native Poland. Their desperate pleas for Japanese and Soviet exit visas were granted by Sugihara, whose “courage to confront evil, defy his government, obey his heart and conscience and adhere to his religious convictions” saved the lives of more than 6000 Jews. Today the progeny of these fortunate Jews numbers in the tens of thousands.

At the direction of Burstein and Cieri, the student actors submitted their individual lines online, often submitting several takes. Bromberg then selected the best versions and through his “technological wizardry” fused them all together into dialogue and eventually wove them all into a full-length play.

In the production, Chiune Sugihara was eloquently and confidently played by Joshua Markovitz, opposite wife Yukiko, played dramatically and movingly by Alex Greene. Portraying the world-renowned Rabbi Zerach Warhaftig was Abigail Warhaftig, to date not known to be related. Rabbi Warhaftig came before the rosh yeshiva of Mir, Rabbi Eliezer Yehuda Finkel, zt”l, to ask that the students be allowed to leave. Rabbi Warhaftig went on to become one of the 37 signatories of the Israeli Declaration of Independence and a leader of World Mizrachi. The role of the Amshinover Rebbe, Rabbi Shimon Shalom Kalish, zt”l, who was a highly regarded and beloved chasidic rebbe at the time, was played capably by Ari Lewis and Noam Hershtick. The Amshinover Rebbe played a pivotal role in convincing the Japanese naval commander to allow the Jews in Japan to be left in peace. The role of Joshua Lichtiger, who would not accept the refusal of a visa for his twin brother, Shmuel, was played dramatically by Racheli Miller.

The 49 students actors, wearing simple black shirts that contrasted sharply with their stark white backgrounds, were confident and expressive in their roles and conveyed their connection to the characters they portrayed and to the Sugihara saga. The students’ performance was framed within a border of vibrant Japanese cherry blossoms and actual photographs of the period collected by Rabbi Burstein from Holocaust archives around the country and Israel. The occasional emotive musical backgrounds were provided by Cieri and Bromberg and added atmosphere and drama to the story.

After the hour-and-a-half performance, a presentation entitled Yavneh Connects, created by Chani Lichtiger, chief of technology at Yavneh; Claire Hirschorn, co-chair of the Yavneh technical department; parent Susan Nadritch; and Rachel Kieffer, featured students presenting the stories and pictures of family members who survived the Holocaust. Among the presenters were twins Gabriella and Jordana Bransdorfer, who presented their great-grandmother. Avi Friedman displayed a picture of his now 101-year-old great-grandmother residing in Israel who was saved along with her sister by being placed on Schindler’s list. A special tribute was presented by Rochelle Khalshy, whose father was Joshua Lichtiger, portrayed in the play. Chani Lichtiger of Yavneh is the daughter-in-law of Shmuel. The Lichtiger brothers are the patriarchs of a family numbering hundreds of descendents.

The students, who were deeply grateful that “the show went on,” expressed their sincere hakarat hatov to those who made it all happen.

To Rabbi Knapp: “As the steward of the Yavneh ship, you are the man who stays on top of each and every aspect of the running of Yavneh. Thank you for continuing to believe in the importance of this project.Thank you for daring to guide the Yavneh ship in these unchartered waters. We had a play without a stage, a grade interacting without the ability to be together and a story that needed to be told.”

To Mrs. Rubin: “On top of everything that you do for Yavneh, you found time to involve yourself in tonight’s production. Your participation was vital. Your support and guidance at each point in the process made it more certain that we would reach this wonderful moment in our eighth-grade experience.”

To Rabbi Burstein: “The amount of work and effort that you have invested into this play is unbelievable. You brought us the story of Sugihara, chose the playwrights, helped with research and writing, organized rehearsals, coached voices—the list goes on and on. We know that the process was different from anything you had done before and yet you approached us, your talmidim,with faith in us and unwavering support. Your love for us and teachings will remain with us long after we graduate from Yavneh Academy.”

To Dominique Cieri: “Dominique, you are a force of nature.Your confidence in us and Zoom training allowed us to learn how to perform. You added music, the scenery, but most of all, you strengthened us with every rehearsal. Your passion for Holocaust study transferred easily to us. You ensured that we would be part of Yavneh’s legacy in keeping the lessons of the Holocaust alive.”

Finally, to Adam Bromberg: “We know that returning home early from your special year in Israel was difficult. But we thank you for your patience and technical ‘wizardry,’ for joining us at rehearsals, training us in the filming process, and following up with us to ensure our accuracy. We know that Sugihara is a newly discovered hero of yours and that you were dedicated to making his story known and part of our Yavneh legacy.”

“Visas for Life: The Sugihara Story” was aired on Zoom on Thursday night, June 4. It can be viewed online at �amanofhonor.abproductions.us.

By Pearl Markovitz

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