Thanks to the efforts of two Pittsburghers with a passion for Israeli culture, Jewish teenagers are invited to join a newly forming Israeli folk dance troupe that will represent the Jewish community at a variety of upcoming events, including the 2012 Pittsburgh International Folk Festival in May.
Lee Feldman, who has been running the Israel booth at the Folk Festival since 2006, along with local dance teacher Lynn Berman, hope to create long-term local appreciation for Israeli dance and representation of Israel through the dance troupe.
In addition to performances at the Folk Festival, Feldman and Berman anticipate the troupe dancing at the Yom Ha’atzmaut celebrations to be held this spring at the Jewish Community Centers in Squirrel Hill and the South Hills.
Berman, who tried unsuccesfully to organize a teen Israeli dance troupe through J-Site this past September, is hoping this new effort will generate more interest.
“Only two kids signed up [for the J-Site dance class], which was not enough,” she said. “It’s not clear why there were not more. But this dance troupe is really important to Lee because of his involvement with the Folk Festival. It is his hope to try to find enough kids who are interested.”
The Pittsburgh Folk Festival Inc. is a nonprofit organization that began in 1956, with 17 nationalities represented. Its purpose is to promote “unity in diversity” by presenting an annual festival of cultures. The festival now highlights the cultural diversity of more than 30 nationalities in the Pittsburgh area.
Feldman began manning the Israel booth at the festival in 2006 after attending it for many years, and getting “ticked off” that there was no Israeli booth.
“I decided I had to put up or shut up,” he said, and with the help of Carolyn Linder, director of the Agency for Jewish Learning’s Jewish Teacher Resource Center, along with some funding from the AJL, he created a cultural booth at the festival representing Israel. The 2006 booth featured Israeli music, dancing led by Pittsburgh’s local shlichim, and a craft project allowing people to create bookmarks with their photos superimposed on an image of the Western Wall.
“It’s important to me to have the Jewish community represented at the festival,” Feldman said. “The festival is a grassroots approach to meeting the gentile community. The people who do the festival are very proud of their heritage. There is a lot of camaraderie there. We all work together.”
The new Israeli dance troupe will be open to both boys and girls, and no previous dancing experience is necessary, Feldman said.
“The point is, I’m trying to see if there is enough interest,” he said, “as I suspect there is.”
While Berman recognizes that Pittsburgh “does not have a strong culture of kids doing Israeli dance,” she is doing her best to generate interest, and develop that culture.
“I have been teaching Israeli dance at five local Sunday schools on an occasional basis,” she said, “so kids now have exposure to dance. If we can generate interest and excitement about dance, there will be a natural interest to perform at big events. Part of the issue is that kids don’t know what Israeli dance is because we haven’t had it yet.”
Israeli dance is popular in other cities, she said, and once teens become involved with it, they often continue with it in college groups.
“Our short-term goal is getting the group up and going this year,” she said. “Our long-term goal is creating a community of Israeli dance.”
While Israeli dance classes are currently offered at Beth El Congregation of the South Hills and the Jewish Community Center in Squirrel Hill, Berman said those sessions primarily attract adults.
“It’s easier for kids to go to classes with other kids,” she said.
(Toby Tabachnick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)
Teens interested in joining the dance troupe may contact Lee Feldman at 412-561-0321.