Jerry’s Habima Theatre is the major fundraiser each year for the Marcus Jewish Community Center’s Blonder special needs department, but for Susie Davidow, the Blonder executive director, Habima is about much more than making money.

This month’s performance of “The Wizard of Oz” is significant because it will be the last one Davidow sees before she retires after 16 years.

“When we first began doing the theater, the actors needed guides and people carrying scenes with them,” Davidow said. “Now they carry everything on their own. It has really evolved into a group of talented young men and women.”

Habima will perform “Oz” seven times, beginning Thursday, March 9. Each actor and actress went through auditions and committed to a long rehearsal process to prepare for the show, which is a little over an hour long.

Davidow said the process of putting on a musical correlates with the mission of the special needs department.

Now in its 24th year, Habima Theatre combines adult participants in Blonder programs with local professional actors to perform a musical each year. It’s the only theater company in Georgia in which actors with special needs work under professional direction.

“It’s good for social interaction, and a lot of friendships are made. It teaches them coping skills, and on a skill-set level they’re learning how to be in theaters,” Davidow said. “They have to have comedic timing and remember dance steps. They nail it every time.”

She’s passionate about the process and how Habima affects the participants. Davidow spent years working with special needs children in an educational setting, and when she became the executive director of the program, her warmth and enthusiasm were beneficial.

She has a knack for relationship building that Marcus JCC CEO Jared Powers said gives her longevity.

“She’s been a part of their lives for a long time. She’s watched some of them go through some incredible challenges,” Powers said. “I’ve heard Susie say it puts a spotlight on their abilities. When they’re at Habima, they’re an actor, they’re onstage performing, and you see someone’s ability to sing, recite lines or dance.”

As the executive director, Davidow has hands-on communication with family members and dedicates her time to developing a program that engages people with special needs. Participants go out to dinner once a month and bowling every Monday.

Davidow attends some of the activities and makes sure others are staffed and well planned. She is proud of Habima because it’s a culmination of the work put in by people with special needs. The actors use all the skills they’ve acquired, and Davidow finds it rewarding to watch it all play out.

“They become self-confident,” she said. “There was a kid who came in, and he mumbled, and now he walks in, holds his head up high and speaks clearly.”

The encouragement the actors receive is important to their success. It gives them motivation to work hard and stay committed. For many of the actors, participation in Habima is also an exercise in autonomy, which is one of the essential lessons in the program.

“There’s a commitment. There are long rehearsals, and many of them have jobs, so they have to ask for time off from their professional jobs and come to Habima and do what’s required of them,” Davidow said.

The process makes Habima special. During Davidow’s tenure as executive director, Habima and the special needs program have expanded.

Saba Silverstein, Habima’s founder, said that when she launched the first play, only a few parents were willing to try putting their children in normal situations. Now the program is a more well-rounded way for those with special needs to learn and grow.

“Susie helped make the trip to Israel happen,” Silverstein said. “People came to her with ideas, and she listened. Now we have committees and subcommittees, and that’s all Susie. There are special cooking classes, and they also learn about personal hygiene. Susie has done nothing but the program every year. She’s just been great.”

Habima Theatre went from having volunteers to paid staff. It even hires actors form the Alliance Theatre. The entire crew is composed of professionals, including the director, stage manager, choreographer, lighting person and sound person.

Davidow smiled as she recounted Habima Theatre’s achievements.

“They won a Suzi Bass Award in 2007, and we have people come back year after year,” Davidow said. “You can’t describe it until you experience it. I tell it to everyone, and if you see it, you’ll know what I mean.”

For more information and ticket pricing visit Jerry’s Habima Theatre