Arts Fellowship Focuses on Jews of Color

Project will support fellows so they can “interrogate, expand, and revitalize notions of Jewish art and identity.”

JTS is the lead sponsor of North America’s first arts fellowship focused on the work of Jews of Color, Jews of Indigenous backgrounds, and Jews of Sephardic and/or Mizrahi heritage. (See list of participants below.)

Called “The Workshop,” the new project was conceived and founded by JTS rabbinical student Kendell Pinkney, with support from the JTS Hendel Center for Ethics and Justice. Besides being a rabbinical student, Pinkney is a professional theatre-maker and creative producer who will serve as The Workshop’s artistic director.

“We’re thrilled to welcome The Workshop artists to the JTS community,” said Chancellor Shuly Rubin Schwartz. “It is an honor to host them, to learn from them, and to be enriched by the creativity they will share.”

Pinkney says The Workshop’s biggest priority is to support and nurture the creative process of its inaugural cohort of seven professional artists. “These are extremely talented, accomplished people—an A-list— who happen to belong to racial and ethnic groups that have been marginalized or overlooked in the larger Jewish community,” he explains. “We want to put their stories and their work front and center, to support them in multiple ways so they can interrogate, expand, and revitalize notions of Jewish art and identity.”

Opportunity to Seed Culture Change

Rabbi Stephanie Ruskay, executive director of the JTS Hendel Center, says that collaborating on programs that spotlight and promote the voices of Jews of Color has been an increasing part of the center’s activities since its founding in 2019. “Collaborating in a sustained way with this talented group of artists offers even more opportunity to seed a culture change in the Jewish community in terms of Jewish identity and experience,” she says.

Over the next year, Workshop artists will take part in monthly Jewish text study with Pinkney at JTS. They’ll have a chance to discuss topics of interest with JTS professors, take a course, and use the vast collection of the JTS Library. Dr. David Kraemer, the Library director and a professor of Talmud and Rabbinics, is the program’s academic advisor.

The fellows will have regular opportunities to gather, share their work, and strategize about creative and professional challenges. Each will also be paired with a mentor from Reboot, a Jewish arts and culture organization with a network of preeminent artists. Fellows will receive a participation stipend, a production/presentation stipend, and access to a performance or workspace. And though the program is focused more on process than outcome, each artist will have opportunities to present works-in-progress, and final works, to the public.

Creating an Artistic Network

Rabbi Ruskay says that one outcome of The Workshop will be to create an ongoing network among the participating artists. JTS, she adds, plans to continue its relationship with them after the fellowship program and to support a new cohort of Workshop artists the following year.

Pinkney, for his part, can’t wait to see how the fellowship influences the participating artists and their work—as well as the larger Jewish community. “Jewish text, ritual, and thought are so powerful—I know that delving into this tradition will generate tremendous creativity.” Other partners of The Workshop include the Jews of Color Initiative, JCC Harlem, and Usdan.

Participants in The Workshop

Artistic Director

Kendell Pinkney is a Brooklyn-based theatre-maker, creative producer, and rabbinical student at JTS. He works and creates art at the intersection of race, Jewish identity, and sacred text, and has most recently been featured in the acclaimed new Israeli docuseries The New Jew with actor-comedian Guri Alfi, Saturday Night Seder, and the Unholier than Thou‘ podcast.

His broader collaborative works have been presented at venues such as 54 Below, Joe’s Pub, LABA @ the 14th St. Y, and Two River Theatre, to name a few. In addition to his creative work, he has served as the rabbinic fellow for the Jewish arts and culture organizations Reboot and LABA and serves on the Spiritual Direction team at Ammud: The Jews of Color Torah Academy. He is a Wexner/Davidson Fellow and a 2017 recipient of the New York Jewish Week’s 36 Under 36.

Inaugural Fellowship Cohort

Avi Amon (Discipline: Music; Theatre) is a Turkish-American composer, sound artist, and educator. Recent credits include: The Copper Children (Oregon Shakespeare Festival), Stew (Soho REP), The Fisherman (HBO Films), The Black History Museum (HERE Arts), Salonika (Berkeley REP), and several sound installations in a 100-year-old grain silo in Buffalo, New York (Torn Space Theater & Prague Quadrennial). In development: Heroine’s Guide (Spotify/Gimlet), Cupids (Tribeca Films), Rated Black with Kareem Lucas (Woolly Mammoth), and Inshallah/Mashallah, a 3D-audio opera re-imagining of the 1,001 Nights (Target Margin Theater). He is a Jonathan Larson Grant and New Music USA Grant winner, a Dramatists Guild Fellow, and has been an artist in residence with THEatre ACCELERATOR, Goodspeed Musicals, Princeton, Exploring the Metropolis at JCAL, Hi-ARTS, Judson, New Dramatists, and Weston Playhouse. Avi is the resident composer at the 52nd Street Project and teaches at NYU Tisch.

Nemuna Ceesay (Discipline: Theatre) (she/her/hers) is an actor originally from California and based in New York. She has an MFA in acting from American Conservatory Theater and has been seen onstage at CalShakes, Joe’s Pub, PlayMakers Rep, Woolly Mammoth, A.R.T., and the Public Theatre, and spent two years at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. Favorite TV credits include Bull, Broad City, Instinct, Younger, FBI, Prodigal Son, and Katy Keene. She has performed internationally at Theatre Calgary and the Moscow Art Theatre. Nemuna has been teaching for many years and currently teaches acting at Hunter College, Circle in the Square Theatre School, and Long Island University. She recently launched an all-BIPOC training program called the Blueprint and has her own business coaching actors for MFA auditions.

Rebecca S’manga Frank (Discipline: Theatre) is an actor, writer, filmmaker, educator, and activist. Most recently she performed in Paula Vogel’s Indecent at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival and on FOX’s Prodigal Son. She’s worked as a director at New York Theatre Workshop, acted with Sundance Theatre Lab in Morocco, and performed at many regional and off-Broadway theaters. In 2020 Rebecca penned a “Psalm for Racial Justice” for Hillel International. She has brought her work to JTS and many other theatrical, academic, and religious institutions. Rebecca is a 2021 LABA NY Fellow and a New Jewish Culture Fellow. She also holds an MFA from NYU.

William DeMeritt (Discipline: Theatre; Film) (he/him) is a graduate of the Yale School of Drama. He was recently in Steph Del Rosso’s The Gradient at Repertory Theatre of St. Louis. He has previously been seen in Lauren Gunderson’s world premiere one-man show The Catastrophist, filmed on stage specifically to be streamed during the pandemic. William was featured at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival starring as William Shakespeare in the US premiere of the stage adaptation of Shakespeare in Love. He has been featured in HBO’s Emmy-winning film The Normal Heart, HBOMax’s The Flight Attendant, the critically acclaimed webseries The Outs, NCIS: New Orleans, Person of Interest, and Law & Order: SVU. Additional theatrical productions of note include the Obie-winning production of The Death of The Last Black Man in the Whole Entire World. William is the creator, writer, and star of the New York Innovative Theatre Award-winning solo show Origin Story. William is also a dialect coach, theatrical and voiceover director, and award-winning audiobook narrator.

Benji Kahn (Discipline: Theatre; Film) is a Black/Biracial queer non-binary New York-based playwright and screenwriter who draws upon their own experiences as a total outsider growing up with a white family in some very small towns. They write toward outsiders and weirdos yearning for a sense of belonging and underdogs reconciling with their inherited trauma, but in a funny, heartfelt, character driven way. Professionally, they have written, directed, and assistant directed for the Public Theatre, Epic Theatre Ensemble, and Dixon Place, among others. They have also written some pretty fancy speeches for some very fancy people but have signed too many NDAs to elaborate any further. They are currently writing and co-producing a fantasy adventure feature for Disney based on the Animal Kingdom theme park and have multiple projects in development with Paul Feig, Two Shakes Entertainment, and others. They were recently chosen for the Sony Diverse TV Writers Program. Kahn graduated with a BFA in Directing and Playwriting from Hampshire College and received their MFA in Screenwriting from Columbia University, where they graduated with honors.

Lilach Orenstein (Discipline: Dance) is a choreographer, performer, and producer best known for combining diverse types of arts from multiple disciplines into poetical synergies. She is an Israeli immigrant with Yemeni-Polish-Romanian roots based in New York City. Lilach earned her bachelor’s in Dance from the Jerusalem Academy of Music and Dance, majoring in Choreography, in 2017, and her MFA in Dance from the University of the Arts, Philadelphia, in 2019. Among her awards are the Presidential Scholarship (University of the Arts), Outstanding Dancer from the Israeli Ministry of Culture, and Excellence Award by the Jerusalem Foundation.

Lilach’s creations “She Will Come on Her Own,” “MUS,” “Dancing from Others,” “Reject – Receive > React!” “Territorium,” “White on White,” “Cēnsēre,” and “Onions” were premiered in Israel’s main stages and abroad. Recently, she assisted in choreographing “The Mother of Us All,” an opera presented at the Metropolitan Museum of Art featuring vocal artists from the Juilliard School and the NY Philharmonic marking 200 years of women’s suffrage. 

She trained professionally with Aharon Katzir, Kolben Dance, Matte Asher, Vertigo, and Batsheva’s programs for outstanding students, and interned at the Kamea Dance Company. She was recently invited to residencies in L1dancefest2019 (Budapest), The Center at West Park (New York City), EMERGENYC 2020 (New York City), IMPULSTANZ’s ATLAS program (Vienna), Derida Dance Center (Sofia), Machol Shalem Dance House (Jerusalem), and Beam Center (Governors Island, New York City).

Daniel Terna (Discipline: Visual Art; Photography) is a Brooklyn-based photographer and filmmaker whose work focuses on family history and inherited trauma, as well as diverse subjects related to public and private boundaries. In 2020, his work on his family during the quarantine was presented in a solo exhibition at Guertin’s Graphics, New York. In 2019, his work was included in a two-person show at LY, Los Angeles. Select group exhibitions include those held at Jack Barrett, New York (2019); Elizabeth Foundation for the Arts, New York (2018); Baxter St. Camera Club of New York (2015); and the New Wight Biennial, UCLA (2014). His work has also been screened at selected venues, including the Echo Park Film Center, Los Angeles (2020); MoMA PS1’s film program in Greater New York, Queens (2016); the New York Film Festival’s Convergence Program (2014); Eyebeam, New York (2013); the Austrian Cultural Forum, New York (2012); and the Carpenter Center for the Visual Arts, Cambridge, Massauchsetts (2011). Terna was a resident in the Collaborative Fellowship Program at UnionDocs, Brooklyn, and was awarded the Cuts and Burns Residency at Outpost Artist Resources in Ridgewood, New York. His work has been featured in Still Magazine, the New York Times, Dazed, Oxford American, Conveyor Magazine, Aint–Bad Magazine, and Slate. Terna graduated with a BA in Photography from Bard College and received his MFA from the International Center of Photography-Bard.

About the JTS Hendel Center

The Hendel Center for Ethics and Justice weaves the study of Jewish ethics and training in civic engagement into the JTS curriculum, seeking to develop Jewish leaders with the knowledge and skills to make ethics and justice central to their leadership. The center also undertakes public initiatives and partnerships with the goal of using Jewish texts and tradition to examine contemporary ethical issues and pursue a more just and equitable world.