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Jerusalem Post


Magic of an idea

From Los Angeles to Ramle: How one girl's dream brought a city together.

Ramle teenagers perform in English
Photo by: Courtesy: Dalia Nava
It’s an inspiring story of dreams coming true in an unlikely reality.
The central figure is a 16- year-old Jewish girl from Los Angeles named Ellie Dubin.
The setting is Ramle, and the project is a summer musical featuring Ramle’s Jewish,
Christian and Muslim teenagers.

“When I first got Ellie Dubin’s e-mail and read the subject line,
I thought it was spam,” said Galit Toledano-Harris, the executive director
of Israel’s Youth Renewal Fund (YRF), a non-profit organization that provides
supplemental education to underprivileged children in Israel.

“I almost didn’t read her e-mail. A student from LA who wants to
bring a musical theater production called ‘Kesem Shel Shir’ to Israel? It seemed a little bit like a Hollywood tale,” said Toledano-Harris.

Fortunately for Dubin, after the YRF director read her e-mail more carefully,
she realized that the Beverly Hills High School student had an incredible idea.
“Ellie had a dream that she wanted to realize in Israel and just needed to find
a way to make it come true,” said Toledano-Harris.

Dubin founded Kesem Shel Shir, The Magic of Music, last year as part of the
Nazarian youth leadership program via the Sinai Temple of Los Angeles,
to which her family belongs. It was through that program that Dubin
developed a musical theater project for underprivileged children
whose schools had little or no arts enrichment. A musical and theatrical performer
 herself who has been part of several school musicals, Dubin directed her
first theatrical production, Cinderella, for an LA elementary school last year.

Following this experience, Dubin decided to bring the program to Israel.

“My family and I are big supporters of Israel, so it only made sense to bring
this project to Israeli children,” Dubin told The Jerusalem Post.

With the help of her family and friends in LA, Dubin raised funds for the project
and was able to connect to the YRF in Israel thanks to YRF’s Executive in New York,
Karen Berman. The YRF in Israel then decided that Dubin’s program would be best
suited for pupils studying at the YRF’s Ethan H. Freed Learning Center in Ramle.

“The idea was to create a two-week English-immersion program for
underprivileged kids in Ramle, through musical theater,” said Dubin.
“The challenge was the geographical distance and limited amount of time
 I had to put the production together once I got to Israel in the summer.”

After securing the Disney license to have the Ramle pupils perform
High School Musical, Dubin decided that to save time, general auditions
for the High School Musical cast would be held before she got to Israel
and cast the participants herself. The YRF’s Ethan Freed Learning Center,
which has over 2,000 pupils enrolled during the school year for interactive-English
lessons, took charge of this aspect in the project and invited Ramle youth to try out for the production via Facebook and local school administrators.

Twenty-one pupils from the seventh, eighth and ninth grades were selected from diverse cultural backgrounds, characteristic of the mixed Jewish-Arab city.

“The pupils were chosen based on musical and theatrical talent, not necessarily their English skills,” said Toledano-Harris.

Elham Makhoul, the principal of the Greek Orthodox elementary school in Ramle, which has both Christian and Muslim pupils, several of whom were chosen to be part of the High School Musical cast, was especially enthusiastic about Dubin’s two-week English-immersion program.

“The YRF enriches Ramle very much and motivates the kids to learn English thanks to great teachers at the Ethan Freed Learning Center. It also creates important cooperation opportunities between Jews and Arabs,” said the principal.

“This musical-theater program was such a great summer activity for local children to be part of,” Makhoul added.

Stella Abu Elazam, whose 15-year-old daughter Colleen auditioned for the production and won the leading role of Gabby Montez, was born and raised in Ramle.

“Colleen auditioned with an Adele song. I was standing outside the stage audition but I knew Colleen was chosen when I heard all the clapping,” said Abu Elazam proudly. “Colleen’s younger sister, Razan, was also picked to act in the production. I’m so proud of my girls.”

Rina Levi, also a proud mother, whose 12-year-old son, Dorel, played Zeke from High School Musical, emphasized the program was a very special initiative.

Levi, of Iraqi descent, was born, raised and married in Ramle. “Ramle is a very special city and home to many different types of people,” she said. Levi explained that the theater program brought together all parts of the socio-economic sectors of the city. “You have children of doctors, janitors, and lawyers, who are part of this play. You can see here that talent doesn’t depend on your social class,” she told the Post.

On the August 8 opening night of the production, as proud parents and family members gathered together from all walks of life and backgrounds – Orthodox Jewish, Christian and Muslim Arabs, Mizrahi and Ashkenazi Jews, Ethiopian immigrants – they were all amazed at the amount of English their children had learned this summer as they performed High School Musical on stage.

Michal Elisheva Hasson, director of the Ethan Freed Learning Center attributed the amount of English learned to Dubin. “Ellie’s a magician, what she did with these kids was magic,” Hasson told the audience. “The fact that this musical is performed entirely in English was no simple feat.”

Dubin acknowledged that there were many challenges in making the project work.

“Here I am, 16 years old, in charge of 20 kids who aren’t that much younger than me. And I have less than two weeks to put this production together,” she said later. “We had a very tight set schedule and we knew exactly what we would do with the kids every day.

“Many of the kids had seen the movie High School Musical, so they were familiar with the story line and could relate to it. They came prepared with their lines memorized. Our job was to sit with each kid, go over the correct pronunciations, read through the songs and make sure they understood what they were saying. But quieting the kids down was a big job in itself.”

In addition, Ellie, along with her 20- year-old cousin Sophie Galant, a student at Claremont McKenna College in California, choreographed the dance steps, modified the music and came up with moves that the children could do.

“Sometimes we embarrassed ourselves dancing,” said Dubin. “But the kids were great, they really respected us and even taught me some Hebrew.”

“The first word they taught me to say was ‘flip-flop’,” she said laughing. “I am really proud of the kids. Some of the children were so afraid to speak in the beginning,” she continued. “There was Itai, who always had someone translate what he wanted to say, and now he talks to us freely in English.”

But perhaps, the proudest people of all are Ellie’s parents, Mark and Cindy, who sat alongside the parents of Ramle and watched their daughter direct the musical production. “It’s so important to us to give our children Jewish roots and values,” said Mark, a radiologist.

“We can’t make aliya now, even though I would love to someday, but this is what we can do: impart a strong love of Israel to our kids and support Israel in creative ways.”

At the end of the performance, the teenage cast of Ramle thanked the Dubin family for their support.

“You made our dreams come true and we thank you for your financial investment in this project,” said one of the teenage members of the cast.

Following the successful night's production, which featured several complex dance scenes and much singing, as well as an auditorium filled with satisfied parents and teens, Elle's next move is to get some rest.

"Now I can finally get some sleep," she concluded with a smile. "But I am looking forward to working with YRF again in the future and having more teenagers experience this special program elsewhere in Israel."

SIXTEEN YEAR-OLD Ellie Dubin, from Los Angeles, 
the night of the "High School Musical" perfromance",
 in Ramle, speaking to the audience about the program. 
 (Couresty: Dalia Nava)   


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