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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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French Jews face uncertain future

A look at some stories from a local leader

In the wake of the terror attacks at the Charlie Hebdo magazine office and the Hyper Cacher grocery store — a kosher market — I participated in a Jewish Agency mission to Paris.

Our delegation of Americans and Israelis arrived last week to show solidarity with the French Jewish community. We also sought to better understand the threat of heightened anti-Semitism in France (and, indirectly, elsewhere in Europe). We met with more than 40 French Jewish community leaders and activists, all of them open to sharing their concerns.

On January 7, Islamist terrorists murdered a dozen Charlie Hebdo staffers as retribution for the magazine’s cartoon depictions of the prophet Mohammed. Two days later, another terrorist held a bunch of Jewish grocery shoppers hostage, killing four, which French President Francois Hollande acknowledged as an “appalling anti-Semitic act.”

 

When rabbis won’t speak about Israel

AJR panel to offer tips for starting a conversation

Ironically, what should be a unifying topic for Jews often spurs such heated discussion that rabbis tend to avoid it, said Ora Horn Prouser, executive vice president and dean of the Academy for Jewish Religion.

Dr. Prouser, who lives in Franklin Lakes and is married to Temple Emanuel of North Jersey’s Rabbi Joseph Prouser, said that she heard a lot over the summer from rabbis and other spiritual leaders. They said that they were “unable or not comfortable talking about Israel in their synagogues,” she reported.

“It didn’t come from a lack of love,” Dr. Horn said. “They’re deeply invested in Israel, and yet they felt they could not get into a conversation without deeply offending other parts of their community.”

 

Take the Shab-bus

‘Horizontal Shabbat elevator’ picks up congregants in North Bergen and Cliffside Park

You’ve been walking to synagogue every Shabbat for years. For decades.

Now your shul is closing. Well, “merging.” But all the services are taking place in the other partner in the merger, the synagogue that’s just a bit stronger than yours, that has been able to keep a rabbi on its payroll.

But that synagogue is five miles away.

Five miles is too far for a comfortable Shabbat morning stroll.

What are you to do?

 

RECENTLYADDED

Initiative brings student nurses together with Holocaust survivors

Nursing is changing, according to Kathy Burke, the assistant dean in charge of nursing at Ramapo College of New Jersey in Mahwah.

“Nurses need to be prepared to move into the community, away from the hospital,” she said. “The community is the most important care-giving site.”

To ensure that their nurses receive this training, Ramapo provides its students with a variety of clinical experiences which “will redefine the health care of the future,” Ms. Burke said.

A new initiative — conceived by Dr. Michael Riff, director of Ramapo College’s Gross Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies, and Leah Kaufman, director of JFS of North Jersey — brings Burke’s students together with Holocaust survivors.

“Taking care of the elderly, especially those with such a unique history, will double the impact of this experience” for her students, Ms. Burke said. “It’s [important] for this newer generation of nurses to talk with individuals who have experienced the Holocaust.”

 

‘You are not numbers. You have a name’

Tenafly JCC Holocaust commemoration highlights survivor from Tappan

When the Kaplen JCC on the Palisades marks Yom Hashoah this year, its ceremony will combine words from the past with the voices of youth. Indeed — in a twist of fate Holocaust survivors could not have foreseen — Jewish children will sing the same opera performed by children at the Theresienstadt concentration camp.

In 1942, Holocaust survivor Ela Weissberger, who lives in Tappan, N.Y., performed the role of the cat in the children’s opera “Brundibar.” The show was staged in Terezin, Czechoslovakia, as part of an effort to convince Red Cross inspectors, visiting delegations, and the world at large that nothing improper was taking place there.

“They took them to a staged area,” Ms. Weissberger said. “They were really fooled.”

On April 16, Ms. Weissberger — the last surviving member of the original cast — will share her memories as part of the JCC’s annual Yom Hashoah commemoration.

 

Evil, hope onstage in Teaneck

Yavneh students tell the story of Berga slave camp in annual Holocaust play

Glen Rock eighth-grader Shmuel Berman took on the role of murderous SS Sgt. Erwin Metz in Yavneh Academy’s recent Holocaust play about the little-known slave-labor camp at Berga in eastern Germany, where hundreds of American prisoners of war were interned along with Holocaust victims.

What was it like to portray a real-life Nazi?

“It was hard,” Shmuel said. “I had to try to get into the character of someone who was not a good person and did terrible things to people.

“I was hoping the audience saw that Erwin Metz considered himself a ‘normal’ person, yet he lied during the court scenes, claiming that he didn’t mistreat anyone. We can learn that evil could happen anywhere; it doesn’t require an evil person.”

 
 
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