Our Jewish communities are strengthened by our diversity, and equitable representation is one of our most essential values. The Miracle Project, an inclusive theater, film, and expressive arts program, deeply understands this Jewish value.
Through the guidance of The Miracle Project’s founder/artistic director Elaine Hall and Cantor Mike Stein of Temple Aliyah in Woodland Hills, CA, The Miracle Project has produced a new song and music video called “of One Breath.” Featuring performers with and without disabilities, including Broadway, TV, and music recording artists, “of One Breath” is a testament to diversity, unity, and empowerment in a time as uncertain and divided as the current moment.
We spoke with them about this innovative and powerful new project to learn how they hope it impacts the Jewish community and everyone who experiences it.
ReformJudaism.org: Where did this idea originate?
Cantor Mike Stein: Fifteen years ago, I formed a choir for the neurologically diverse Jewish community in partnership with Our Space LA, called Kolot Tikvah, Voices of Hope, which was invited to participate in the production of a commercial. Everyone was excited, and we spent countless hours rehearsing – so when we saw that none of our diverse choir members were in the final commercial, our youth and families were crushed. I knew that I had to do something to raise their spirits.
So, I called Elaine, because I knew of her pioneering work with inclusion, neurodiversity, and the arts. Once she was on board, I wrote this song to show off the amazing talents and abilities of diverse youth and to reflect racial and cultural diversity. Elaine handled the pre-production side/funding, and I grabbed my favorite arranger, HB Barnum, who had written for Aretha Franklin and others. I also enlisted my dear friend, Peter Yarrow.
Together, we created this amazing video. No longer would our kids end up on the editing floor.
Elaine Hall: It was the perfect opportunity to combine our talents and passion for inclusion and showcase the voices of those who are often marginalized. I thought, “If not us, who? If not now, when?”
ReformJudaism.org: Who else collaborated with you?
Hall: It was important that the voices of young adults who are rarely seen or heard be front and center in the video. My son, Neal Katz, is one of them; he types to communicate and starts the video by using his device to speak. My friend Dr. Stephen Shore – a musician, professor, and leader in the autism community – also participated, revealing the wide spectrum of autism.
The lead singers, Naomi Rubin and Domonique Brown, are professional actors on the spectrum and members of The Miracle Project Company class, as is Sylvia Weiss. It was also important that the cast be racially and culturally diverse, to show that we are all made “of one breath.”
Hall: We modeled some of our choreography on the ASL movements of actress Sharon Pierre-Louis, one of the most expressive and dynamic sign language interpreters in Los Angeles. And the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, the Jewish Community Foundation Los Angeles, and a few other generous donors contributed to the cost of production and paying the performers and musicians.
ReformJudaism.org: What was it like to create this during the COVID-19 pandemic?
Stein: From learning the song and the sign language to producing the entire project in completely different spaces, there were a lot of challenges.
Using Zoom, I taught the song during The Miracle Project’s Social Skills and Judaica classes and at Kolot Tikvah’s classes. After everyone recorded their singing or instrumental tracks, we held several mixing sessions and added everyone’s lip-syncing videos.
All of this was done via internet, email, and text messaging. What might’ve normally taken a month to do took the entire summer and into the fall!
Hall: Recording and filming virtually is always a challenge, but it allowed participants to work from home and make it a family project – to feel heard and belong to something greater than themselves.
ReformJudaism.org: What have you noticed regarding disabilities inclusion in Jewish communities?
Hall: For 15 years, I’ve worked with faith-based organizations to help them better embrace those who perceive the world differently. I believe that every Jewish community wants to be diverse and inclusive – some just may not understand how to achieve that goal.
For example: Because of the pandemic, I virtually attended High Holiday services from all over the country. I was moved by so many creative, innovative, and powerful services, but I was equally upset that none except my own shul, Nashuva, showed individuals who had disabilities.
ReformJudaism.org: How can our congregations do better?
Hall: Jewish communities must open their hearts to those different from what they might consider the “norm,” including people with disabilities. By applying our curiosity to doing better rather than being judgmental, our communities can return to the idea of b’tzelem Elohim.
I believe that one day it will be common for individuals with disabilities to read from Torah, to serve in leadership positions, to be songleaders and participate actively in services; we have students at The Miracle Project who do this all the time. I know several non-speaking individuals, including my son, who use their iPads to share their Torah drashes on Shabbat.
Once we change our attitudes, the “how” starts to happen effortlessly. “of One Breath” is a beginning to this change in attitude.
ReformJudaism.org: What do you want people to take away from this song and video?
Stein: I want everyone to hear the poetry of these young people’s lives; they are about joy, accomplishment, and love. And I want others to join them. The lyric “We know we are whole” means all of us; the glue uniting us is God’s breath that we all have inside and deserves to be heard.
Hall: “of One Breath” is a call to action, representing how the world needs to be: diverse, inclusive, and a place where everyone’s voices can be heard, where we all belong.
In a time where the world is so divided, this song can bring us together. With an open heart, open mind, we can create a world where we all belong.