Matthew Tom-Wing, right, dressed as Elvis, was one of the participants in the 2019 Chutzpah! Festival finale. His mother, Elizabeth Tom-Wing, recalled it as a “standout moment for our community and for our son!” (photo from JCC)
February is Jewish Disability Awareness and Inclusion Month (JDAIM). It offers a wonderful time to look back at some of our community achievements in fostering inclusion at the Jewish Community Centre of Greater Vancouver; in particular, the 2019 Chutzpah! Festival’s Inclusion Project.
Mary-Louise Albert was artistic and managing director of Chutzpah! and the Rothstein Theatre for 15 years. Before she retired, she and I had many spirited conversations about the importance of creating access for local community members in all areas of Jewish communal life and at the JCC, which is the home of the festival and the theatre, and where I am the coordinator of inclusion services.
We believed that the arts are an important avenue for personal growth and skills development, and that they also bolster visibility and foster true belonging. We hoped that the JCC’s inclusion services and Chutzpah! could collaborate in some way and, through our conversations and Mary-Louise’s vision and expertise, the Chutzpah Inclusion Project crystalized.
After months of planning, in November 2019, members of the local community took to the Rothstein stage to participate in a first-ever Inclusion Project performance – an evening of dance and comedy with international inclusion advocate Pamela Schuller and professional dancers Troy Ogilvie and Rebecca Margolick. The event was the finale of the 2019 Chutzpah! Festival and a highlight of Albert’s final year with Chutzpah!
In preparation to take to the stage, participants had a yearlong introduction to theatre, including low-barrier and free classes with a specialist through the JCC’s Theatre Lab program. Participants attended many local productions through the JCC’s social club, and spent hours rehearsing and co-creating with Ogilvie, Margolick and Schuller over a series of workshops that would not have been possible without community partners and friends.
The 2019 performance received a standing ovation from the audience. The feeling of solidarity and acceptance between the audience and the performers was palpable. What was most amazing, Elizabeth Tom-Wing recalled, is that her son had the opportunity to “train and perform on stage with the professional dancers, along with his friends, and close off the three-week-long 2019 Chutzpah! Festival.” She recalled it as a “standout moment for our community and for our son!”
This project demonstrated that artists of mixed ability and skill can create a powerful and moving performance. Moreover, it reminds us that it is only through equity and action that belonging can be fostered. As diversity, equity and inclusion strategist Arthur Chan explains: “Diversity is a fact. Equity is a choice. Inclusion is an action. Belonging is the outcome.”
Leamore Cohen is inclusion services coordinator at the Jewish Community Centre of Greater Vancouver.