Jerry’s Habima Theatre has come a long way over the past quarter decade.
“The focus of this special theater company is a parallel approach: helping adults … with special needs find their ‘community,’ while helping with camaraderie, self-awareness, and self-confidence,” explains Kim Goodfriend, founding artistic director. “Habima is a tremendous opportunity given to people with disabilities, to develop a network with the cast that they rehearse and study their lines with.”
The Marcus JCC theater is Georgia’s only theatrical company that for 26 seasons has brought together professional actors from the community and talented adult actors with special needs to present a musical theatrical production to sell-out audiences and much acclaim.
“In the early production years of Habima, actors were regularly prompted from backstage throughout the show’s run. Today, most of the scenes are carried entirely by the actors. In addition, now, they sing and dance in front of an audience night after night, memorize lines, follow a script, receive standing ovations and flowers, and find their sense of belonging,” Goodfriend said. “Partnership, professionalism, creativity, and love have motivated all the folks who have staffed Jerry’s Habima Theatre over the years.”
One of its longest participants, playing Calliope next month in the theater’s 26th annual production, “Xanadu Jr.,” is 48-year-old Michelle Cristal.
“She’s come a long way,” explains Michelle’s mother, Marilyn. “I never would have believed that she could do it, and in front of so many people!
“Michelle was so nervous to be onstage at first. But Habima has really made her come out of her shell. It was so good for her,” Marilyn Cristal said. “The first time I saw her onstage, I cried. But as the years have gone by, she’s had more speaking roles and has gotten more confidence.”
When Michelle was a child, Marilyn and her husband, Alan, knew that something was cognitively not right.
“Michelle started at the Ahavath Achim [Synagogue] preschool at 4 ½, and her teacher made me aware of my daughter’s learning disability,” Marilyn explained. “Her disabilities included poor eye-hand coordination, visual perception, and fine and gross motor skills. She had difficulty learning how to ride a bike or tie her shoes.
“For two years, we got Michelle special personal tutors, until we found The Howard School, (a school that recognizes each learner’s strengths, while also addressing their disabilities and weaknesses). Michelle stayed there for 8 ½ years until she was 14,” Marilyn said.
She and her husband looked for residential high schools for Michelle that would have the resources she needed. The (then) director of The Howard School helped them to find some that would be a good fit. The first high school was in Amenia, N.Y. (where Michelle stayed for four years); the other in East Sandwich, Mass. (where she stayed for two years, and from which she graduated at the age of 21), earning her long sought-after high school diploma.
Michelle tried a college-type setting, but it didn’t work. So, she came home.
She joined the MJCCA’s VSP (Very Special People) program within its special needs department when the agency was still located in Midtown in the 1990s. She also became involved with Jewish Family & Career Services, which found department store jobs for VSP participants. Michelle was hired by Marshalls, where she has worked in various capacities for more than 10 years, and she has earned multiple awards, commendations, and salary increases.
Shortly after joining VSP, Michelle got involved with Jerry’s Habima Theatre.
“We are very thankful for our benefactor Jerry Blonder’s patronage and foresight,” Marilyn said. “And, we couldn’t be prouder of Michelle; she has accomplished so much.”
“Xanadu Jr.” is a musical tale full of romance, art and dancing, ideal for audiences of all ages. It runs March 7 through March 17 at the MJCCA’s Morris & Rae Frank Theatre, 5342 Tilly Mill Road, Dunwoody. Jerry’s Habima Theatre is produced under the auspices of the MJCCA’s Blonder Family Department for Special Needs. To purchase tickets, visit www.atlantajcc.org/habima or call 678-812-4002.