The arts have been a subject which, for a long time, have held great importance to the students who make up the community at Rutgers Hillel. In the past, there were frequent opportunities for students to produce and appreciate art. Over the last few years, this work has been sadly not possible, largely due to the Covid-19 pandemic. However, this semester, both students and Rutgers Hillel staff are pushing to bring the arts back to life in our building and in our community. From an arts-centric Jewish Learning Fellowship, to crafting circles and the student-led production of a Jewish art zine, to performance groups and much more, we are all coming together to keep the arts alive. 

One group that is making a comeback is SHEM Productions. This theater group (housed in the Eva and Arie Halpern Hillel House on the Wilf Family Campus, but not excluding membership to solely Jewish students), was founded in 2003 by Tova Halpern. At the time, the group was called the Hillel Theater Company. We were able to talk to Tova about her founding of and involvement with the group. 

The cast of SHEM’s 2015 production of The Importance of Being Earnest during a curtain call.

RH: What led you to found the Hillel Theater Company?

TH: My freshman year at Rutgers I auditioned for a show at Livingston Theatre Company. When I received a callback I was super excited, but then I found out it was Eruv Yom Kippur. When I told the directors that I could not attend, they were not flexible in allowing me to attend the callback at another time. So, since I was majoring in theatre and still wanted to participate in a club at Rutgers, we started the Hillel Theatre Company, where students, regardless of religious background, could still participate in productions. Our only true rule was that we did NOT perform or rehearse on shabbat. Otherwise, it was open to everyone. Truth is, religious Jews felt like they could participate but also actors from various backgrounds liked knowing they did not have rehearsal on Fridays nights/Saturdays. 

RH: Beyond being the founder, what was your involvement in the Company while attending Rutgers?

TH:  My Freshman year I acted in “You’re A Good Man, Charlie Brown” as Lucy Van Pelt. My sophomore year through senior year, I acted as either Producer or Director. We produced 1 show each semester and left the club with $10,000 when we graduated. That was really something to be proud of!

The cast of You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown, including Tova Halpern as Lucy Van Pelt.

RH: Did you have any involvement in theater prior to founding this group?

TH: Yes, I grew up a theatre kid. I was always in school and community productions, worked as a theatre camp counselor and participated in a 1 year musical theatre conservatory program in Miami.  

RH: What was your favorite production that you were part of at Hillel and why?

TH:Our FIRST big production: Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. So many students participated in this production as actors and techies. Everyone had a great time!!

The cast and crew of SHEM’s production of Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory.

RH: Why were you passionate about forming a theater group at Hillel?

TH: I have never taken to people telling me “no.” Former Hillel Director Andrew Getrear gave me the platform to create my own opportunity so that I could still do musical theatre on campus while also keeping Shabbat. Under the guidance of Rabbi Reed, who was Assistant Director of Hillel then, the program was very successful in my 4 years at Rutgers. 

RH: What advice do you have for the new leadership of SHEM?

TH: Remember that at the end of the day, theatre makers exist to tell stories. These experiences come in all shapes and sizes, but at the end of the day, it should all be fun! So no matter how stressful putting on a show can be (“tech week”), it really does all have a way of working out in the end. Keep moving, keep swimming and most of all, have fun!

Following the lengthy Covid shutdown of the group, there was much chatter about reinstating it at Hillel. In Spring of 2023, these efforts are finally coming to fruition, led by Leah Spector, an 18-year-old first year student at Rutgers who grew up in Cherry Hill, New Jersey. We were able to chat with Leah about her involvement in, inspiration related to, and hopes for the new iteration of SHEM. 

RH: What is your position on the SHEM board?

LS: I am the president and producer on the SHEM executive board (e-board), which means I oversee the SHEM executive board and produce whatever show we choose to put on. I organize all the meetings, work with RUSA (the Rutgers University Student Assembly) in order to support the club, and attain the rights for our shows. 

RH: Why is bringing SHEM back important to you? What sparked the idea? 

LS: Bringing SHEM back to Rutgers is incredibly important to me as I am a major theater geek and think observant Jews such as myself, plus anyone else with religious exemptions, should have the opportunity to celebrate theater- whether that means directing, working backstage, or being in the spotlight. When I first came to Rutgers, and people at the Rutgers Hillel told me about SHEM and how they are looking for people to reinstate it, I originally thought that it was a great idea, but I am way too busy to take on such a large project, especially as a freshman. Fortunately, I soon realized after working closely with other community leaders that if I really care about making something happen, I can make time for it. It was after I got involved with other theater companies that I really realized that this is something I wanted to take on. I directed a show at Cabaret theater and, while it is an amazing company, I had to work out the obstacle of having productions on Shabbat. I thought to myself that, while I was able to make that one show work, and my high school director worked with me, I’m not always going to have the opportunity to work with the company regarding my religious obligations. I realized that if I really wanted a place where I did not have to worry about religious obligations, I had to make it happen myself. 

RH: What past involvement have you had in theater? What type of work do you do?

LS: I have been involved in theater since I was four years old. I started off just doing camp shows at JCC Camps at Medford and then took some singing lessons in middle school. I started to really take theater seriously in high school when I played a reporter in “Chicago.” High school is where I really learned to explore my talents and take advantage of all the opportunities at my fingertips. I performed in “Chicago,” “We Will Rock You,” “Powerline,” “Cinderella,” and “Radium Girls.” I also did backstage work and assistant directed for, “Almost Maine” and “The Giver”. Additionally, I directed “Inappropriate Audience Behavior”, “13 Ways to Screw Up Your College Interview”, “The Brothers Grimm Spectaculathon”, and “On The Porch One Crisp Spring Morning”. Lastly, I produced the “By Women for Women” production at the Katz JCC in ninth grade along with “Alice in Wonderland” at Politz Day School in senior year. I have been studying choir for five years now and have been in an all female acapella group. I also have been studying acting science for five years now and I am currently in an improv class at Rutgers and playing the role of Peacock in College Avenue Player’s production of “Clue”. I have membership in the International Thespian Society along with the TriM Music Honors Society. I was my high school’s thespian society treasurer and won awards for best play, best director, and best lighting design in twelfth grade. I have qualifications in costume, set, and lighting design but typically, I consider myself to be a performer and director. 

RH: Why do you feel it is important to have theater at Hillel? 

LS: Theater is for everyone, regardless of race, sexuality, ethnicity, or religion. Theater has always been a struggle for those who have religious obligations due to their time commitments. While it is understandable- theater does require a large amount of dedication- it does not mean that those with religious obligations cannot dedicate themselves just as much as those without them. Having a theater company that is flexible and cognizant of all forms of religious observation and obligation allows students to be religious and practice theater however they wish. Not only can religious students partake in shows through SHEM, but their religious family and friends can also attend. Having theater open to the Hillel community opens so many doors to those who are the creative performing type and gives opportunities to people that they otherwise would not have. 

RH: What challenges does the SHEM e-board currently face?

LS: While SHEM’s e-board has been on quite a productive streak recently, we are still struggling with some difficulties. In order to put on a quality performance, we need funding (when giving, please include “SHEM Productions” in the “gift note” section) in order to attain rights, buy props, make costumes, build sets, and more. We need the help of the community to get us to our goals of producing a magnificent, professional quality performance. With help from community members, we can provide students with religious obligations a truly genuine theater experience on par with that they would get if they were a part of any other theater company. Additionally, we ask for the community’s support. Without students, families, alumni, and administrators who participate and support the company, the group will not last. We need dedicated individuals to help keep SHEM alive and the mission strong. 

RH: What are you most excited about in regards to SHEM? Is there a production you have in mind to put on? An activity planned for the group that you can’t wait for? 

LS: I am so excited to perform again. While I love directing, there is something so special about being on stage. While I cannot share the name of the show we are planning to do, I can share that we are planning to put on a spring musical, given that we receive the rights. I am so excited to produce a musical for the first time. I have never done a project this big before so I am very excited to get a company together and really make this idea a reality. 

RH:  Is there anything else you would like the wider Rutgers Hillel community of students, alumni, and supporters to know? 

LS: SHEM productions is not only for Jewish students. While rehearsals will be taking place at Rutgers Hillel, the company is open to all of Rutgers and just happens to be focused on providing religious exemptions. 

If you wish to connect with and follow everything happening with SHEM, they can be found on the web or you can follow them on Instagram using the handle @shemproductions. You can also follow Rutgers Hillel to keep up with this and other arts initiatives housed on the Rutgers University campus in our Hillel House.