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Former Rockette Rachel Factor now performs women-only shows

 
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In her former life, Rachel Factor starred in Broadway shows and kicked up her heels as a Rockette at Radio City Music Hall.

But that was back then, when she was known as Christine Frances Masave Horii. The Hawaiian born entertainer has come a long way since. Though she continues to enthrall audiences, her acts have been modified: These days, the Orthodox Jerusalem resident dresses modestly and performs only for women’s audiences.

Factor shares the story of her journey — from growing up in Hawaii to performing in Los Angeles and New York to her home in Jerusalem — in a one-woman show of dance, song, and story that has enchanted more than 30,000 women worldwide.

Factor will entertain a local audience on Monday, Nov. 22, at a fund-raising event at Cong. Keter Torah in Teaneck for the Teaneck mikvah.

Event organizers told The Jewish Standard that Factor motivates people to think, but is more entertaining than the typical speaker. “People love to hear about her journey to Orthodoxy,” said Miriam Greenspan, president of the Teaneck Mikvah Assocation. “She dances and sings and shares funny and inspiring stories along the way.” The aim of the event is to bring the Jewish women of Teaneck together and to help raise funds for the recent $4 million mikvah renovation, she said.

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Rachel Factor used to be Christine Horii — and then she converted to Judaism. COURTESY RACHEL FACTOR

A fourth-generation Japanese-American, Factor was born and raised in Honolulu by her Protestant parents. She attended a prep school run by missionaries and found an outlet in the performing arts. Her talent in song and dance earned her renown, and she was enlisted to perform in the community theater.

She left Hawaii at 18 to pursue a career in Los Angeles, where she landed work as a dancer and earned acclaim in music videos, film, and television, where she appeared in more than 40 commercials. She moved to New York and performed in off-Broadway productions, as a Rockette, and in Broadway shows including “Shogun, the Musical” and “Miss Saigon.”

Yet for all of her success, Factor related in an interview conducted by e-mail last week, she felt spiritually dead.

Career driven, she had no time to think about whether she was leading a meaningful life. But everything changed when, at age 29, she met and fell in love with Todd Factor, a Jewish television commercial producer.

He told her that it was essential for him to marry a Jewish woman and have Jewish children. She was impressed by his devotion to the Jewish people and began studying Judaism. The beliefs resonated within her, and she was drawn to the rituals. Upon realizing that Factor knew very little about his faith, she urged him to join the Judaism class she was taking.

She underwent a Conservative conversion, married Todd Factor, and lived as a mostly secular Jew. But she continued learning about Judaism, and she bought her husband his first pair of tefillin.

The birth of their first child moved the couple to deepen their commitment to Jewish life. The Orthodox mohel they hired for their son’s brit milah encouraged them to develop greater Orthodox connections.

Having a child, said Rachel Factor, made her wonder whether she and her husband were living a lifestyle befitting their new task of nurturing a soul. She felt that Orthodoxy offered a structure that revolved around family life, and that appealed to the couple.

But to become Orthodox, she would have to give up her life as a performer, because it was a contradiction to the Orthodox way. Modest dress, hair-covering, and prohibitions against dancing with and singing for men would essentially bar her from working ever again in theater, she thought.

It was a painful sacrifice, she acknowledged. “I identified as an actor and dancer. What was I left with if I wasn’t ‘Tina the dancer’?” Despite that obstacle, she and her child underwent Orthodox conversions.

Eventually, she found new ways to express herself creatively. Her one-woman show makes use of all the artistic skills that she’s been working on for the past two decades, she said.

At first, Factor performed her show for gatherings of women in living rooms, but word spread about her performances, and soon the living rooms gave way to larger venues in theaters, Jewish centers, schools, and synagogues.

She marvels that she’s more in demand than ever before, and she feels that her search for identity resonates with both religious and non-religious audiences. “It is a journey from my old life as a professional dancer, looking for spirituality and finding it in the most unusual of places, Orthodox Judaism, through storytelling, song, and dance.”

But she wasn’t content simply to enjoy performing for audiences. She wanted to give the opportunity to other religious women to find ways of expression. In 2005 she opened Ha Machol Shel Bnos Miriam, a dance-and-wellness center in Jerusalem. The goal of the center is to provide women of all ages the opportunity to dance, work out, and express themselves in a Jewish environment, she said.

“The arts and spirituality are very closely tied together,” she added. “Artists are looking for truth, for beauty, for love. You can find all of those things in HaShem.”

Reflecting on her voyage, she said she is incredibly thankful for the life she now leads in the Jerusalem neighborhood of Sharei Chesed. “I just had my fifth child at the age of 41, I have a full life of Torah and mitzvos, and a dance studio giving religious girls and women the opportunity to express and rejuvenate themselves through the arts. It’s more than I ever dreamed of.

“As an artist, you want to be able to affect people even in the smallest way — to change them, inspire them,” she said. “I’ve never felt that so fully as I do now.”

 
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Praying while female at the Kotel

Women of the Wall representative to speak locally

What’s going on with the Women of the Wall now?

What’s happening with gender equality and pluralism in Israel, now that the Israeli election is over?

Women of the Wall, made up of women from across the Jewish spectrum, has fought for the right to pray at the Kotel — Jerusalem’s Western Wall, the symbolic center of Jewish life, the magnet that draws observant and non-observant Jews, non-Jews, poets, and often even skeptics, close to it, as if they were pure iron filings.

The group, which was formed in the late 1980s, has been bolstered by legal wins. Its most important recent victory was the April 2013 decision by Judge Moshe Sobel of the Jerusalem District Court, who ruled that the city police were wrong when they arrested five women for the crime of wearing tallitot at the women’s section of the Kotel.

 

‘Oy vey, my child is gay’

Orthodox parents seek shared connection in upcoming retreat

Eshel, a group that works to bridge the divide that often separates lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender Jews from their Orthodox communities, is holding its third annual retreat for Orthodox parents of those LGBT Jews next month.

Although most of its work is done with Orthodox LGBT Jews — who may or may not be the children of the parents at the retreat — the retreat offers parents community, immediate understanding, the freedom to speak that comes with that understanding, the chance to learn, and the opportunity to model healthy acceptance.

“There are particular issues to being Orthodox and having a gay child, although it varies a lot from community to community,” Naomi Oppenheim of Teaneck said. “You worry about what the community is thinking about you. Someone — I don’t remember who — said, ‘When my kid came out, I went into the closet.’”

 

Twenty years later

Stephen Flatow remembers his murdered daughter Alisa

When you ask attorney Stephen Flatow of West Orange how many children he has, his answer is immediate.

“I have five children,” he says.

Not surprising. What father doesn’t know how many children he has?

And how are they doing?

Four of them are flourishing; they are all married and all parents. Mr. Flatow and his wife, Rosalyn, have 13 grandchildren, and another one’s on the way. (And three of the Flatows’ children live in Bergen County.)

But the fifth, his oldest, Alisa, was murdered by terrorists when she was 20; her 20th yahrzeit was last week. She has been dead as long as she was alive.

“Just because she isn’t there now, that doesn’t mean I’m not her father,” he said. “I just don’t have any recent pictures of her to show.”

 

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Standing together with Israel

Local groups join for evening of unity as they discuss ways to protect Israel

Lee Lasher of Englewood has a deep interest in ensuring that different parts of the local Jewish community come to trust, respect, and even like each other.

To that end, Mr. Lasher, an alumnus of the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey’s Berrie Fellows Leadership program, and fellow alums — and now friends — Ian Zimmerman of Glen Rock and Ari Hirt of Teaneck, formed a group called Unite4Unity, which until now has explored the bridges that actually do span the community.

Now, the three friends have decided to multitask. Another cause dear to all of them is Israel. What could be better, they thought, than to bring the community together around the Jewish state? And given their own orientation toward action, what would be best would be to give people information they can use to present Israel positively, to combat such threats as BDS with knowledge, insight, and passion.

 

Considering German Jews

Spätzle, weiner schnitzel, stuffed cabbage, and German chocolate cake are on the menu for Shabbat dinner on May 1 at Temple Emanuel of the Pascack Valley in Woodcliff Lake. It’s all part of the shul’s weekend exploration of German Jewish heritage.

German Jews are known not only for their signature cuisine, however. They tend to have a reputation as “yekkes” — obsessively punctual, punctilious, and a touch pompous.

The shul’s Rabbi Benjamin Shull admits he bought into that stereotype — he is the descendant of Lithuanian Jews — until he discovered through genealogical research that he, too, has German-Jewish ancestors. So do about a third of his regular congregants.

 

Balancing attraction and halachic law

Local Orthodox rabbis meet with therapists and LGBT Jews

On Sunday, some leading Orthodox rabbis, including Rabbi Shmuel Goldin of Congregation Ahavath Torah in Englewood and Rabbi Nathaniel Helfgot of Netivot Shalom in Teaneck, met with mental-health professionals and members of the Orthodox gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender community for a conference on “sexual orientation and gender identity in the Orthodox and chasidic world,” as a press release put it.

The conference, about 150-strong, held at the Kraft House on Columbia University’s campus, was organized by the modern Orthodox, Upper West Side Lincoln Square Synagogue; the William Alanson White Institute of Psychiatry, Psychoanalysis and Psychology; and JQY, a nonprofit that provides support to young LGBT Orthodox and chasidic Jews.

 
 
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