Thriving Despite the Shutdown

Shock. Disbelief. Anger. And, finally, sadness and a feeling of loss.
    These are the range of emotions experienced by many people, to some degree or another, as it became clear the COVID-19 pandemic was going to last longer than a month or so.
    Then came hope.
    Now, after approximately 17 months of social distancing, mask wearing and not being able to gather in person, we are slowly coming back to life. The feeling of hopelessness is quickly being replaced by hope, joy and excitement.
    Even with the recent surge, and an almost daily update to the current CDC and local public health guidance, our lives have slowly been able to return to “normal”, whatever that may be. Despite 15 long months of sequestration, we in the Jewish Federation’s Cultural Arts program managed to be quite productive, utilizing technology that none of us really knew existed before the start of the pandemic, finding ways to connect with each other and our community. 
    Before the shutdown, it would have been impossible to conceive that we could engage in our usual activities—concerts, plays, musicals and rehearsal space –without meeting in person. But we quickly learned how to connect virtually. 
    Two months into the shutdown, Cantor Judy Sofer posted her first concert, a Mother’s Day concert, via Zoom. Shortly thereafter, the JFed Players posted Looking Back, Moving Forward, a concert filled with songs from past shows as well as some from the musical originally scheduled to open in April 2020, Stephen Sondheim’s A Little Night Music (which will finally be produced in Spring 2022).
    Shir Delights X came next, in June of 2020; Kol HaEmek’s annual concert would not be stopped because of COVID. Kol HaEmek began rehearsing shortly after the state shutdown, ZOOM replacing in-person rehearsals. Not a perfect solution by any means, but we were still able to rehearse specific parts and, most importantly, were still able to connect.
    Summer brought a tour de force, Andrew Lloyd Weber’s Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, a collaboration between the United Synagogue Youth (USY) at Pasadena Jewish Temple and Center (PJTC) and the Jewish Federation’s Cultural Arts Program. All during the summer, Cantor Sofer and Melissa Levy (PJTC) rehearsed virtually with over 40 participants–actors, singers, dancers, and musicians–of all ages.
    All cast members recorded their parts separately, alone in their homes with just a smartphone and a computer. The individual parts were woven together by the expert editing of Brian Gordon and tuned by Sofer. Interestingly, Gordon learned the editing technology necessary to put these productions together, concerts, plays and musicals alike, after the pandemic began. Sofer did the same with her tuning program. Necessity is the mother of invention or, in this case, learning. “Joseph” made its online debut in January, and remains available for streaming on the Jewish Federation website,, as do our other virtual programs.
    This past December, the Jewish Federation presented its Festival of Jewish Music, an annual celebration of Jewish music that featured Kol HaEmek, the Jewish Youth Orchestra and local cantors. The concert was virtual–some performances were live over Zoom, others recorded–but the end result was the same: Our celebration of Jewish music was undaunted by the pandemic and enjoyed by many.
    Since 2017, the JFed Players, in collaboration with the Pasadena Playhouse, had been performing staged readings to commemorate Yom HaShoah. In 2020, COVID made this impossible. In 2021, undeterred by the pandemic, the JFed Players, along with local cantors, presented “Remember Their Voices,” a series of monologues and songs echoing the voices of the souls lost during the Holocaust.
    In May, Kol HaEmek’s annual concert, Shir Delights XI, debuted online. This concert was the culmination of a year of online rehearsals and individual recordings.
    As the pandemic dragged on, we continued to find ways to connect with one another and the community. The JFed Players produced, online, two separate episodes of “Pandemic Playhouse,” one in 2020 and one in June 2021, consisting of short plays–one of which, “The Job Interview,” was written by one of our own, John Carlton–and a monologue. 
    The JFed Players also presented a virtual production, the debut of a new musical, Studio System, written by another one of our own, Mary Gatter. Again, 14 actors participated in Zoom rehearsals and recorded themselves individually. Those recordings were sent to Sofer to be tuned, then to Brian Gordon to be edited into the final production. Under the guidance of Joanne Karr and Linda Jones, the JFed Players started a new program, “Participatory Play Readings,” yet another way for us to connect with the community. The monthly virtual meeting of anyone who would like to get together and read a play or script has been well attended and will continue even after we return to “normal.”
    During this time, Sofer also created and produced the “Jewish Cooking Connection,” an online cooking show featuring cooks from across the greater San Gabriel and Pomona Valleys, making family recipes and sharing the stories behind them, as they are recorded in their own kitchens. The series is gearing up for its fifth installment.
    As proud as we are of all these accomplishments, we are very happy to announce that live, in-person, productions and rehearsals are scheduled to resume in the near future*. The JFed Players’ Fall play, the comedy Scapino!, opens on Oct. 2 at Porticos Art Space in Pasadena. A rollicking and funny play inspired by Italian comedia del arte, it was a Broadway hit in the 1970s. Kol HaEmek resumes weekly rehearsals, with a break for High Holidays, on Aug. 18.
    Thank you for all your support throughout this very unique time. We all look forward to seeing each other, and you, in the coming year. More information regarding all our programming is available on the Jewish Federation website (, on our specific webpages (JFed Players and Kol HaEmek) as well as on the Community Calendar.
    *COVID protocols are in place. Please note that, at this time, only those fully vaccinated can be cast in JFed Play[1]ers’ plays or work backstage. The same applies for those who would like to sing in Kol HaEmek Community Chorale.   

Lori McKenna is a contributing writer to Jlife Magazine.


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