Jonah’s death ten years ago commenced a journey for many of us that has been filled with sadness (of course) but also with love — so much love. With this campaign, “10 Years Later,” you’re invited to spend some time with some of Jonah’s best friends and teachers.
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Meet Jill Abusch.
Jill is co-founder, Artistic Director, Camp Director and resident second mommy to many students and alumni of The Play Group Theatre. Along with directing many of PGT’s stage productions, Jill teaches a variety of classes from Little Theatre to Advanced Acting Technique, and has gone into schools and camps to train teachers on the use of drama in the classroom. She studied acting and directing at the Stella Adler Conservatory and the Classical Studio at NYU Tisch School of the Arts, where she earned a BFA in Drama. She adores working alongside her husband and partner, Steven, and is especially proud of their best productions, by far, Aviva and Ilana.
Jonah was my student, and yet, as all good students are, he was, in turn, my teacher too. In the last ten years, Jonah’s lessons – the lessons I learned from knowing and adoring him, and those I learned from losing him – have created his lasting legacy. It is a legacy of intense kindness, irresistible playfulness, outrageous spontaneity, and a fearless embracing of the unknown.
I tell this story a lot but that’s because it is so quintessential Jonah … and so unlike anyone else I have ever known. It was the fall of 2006 – Jonah was a junior in high school. We were having callbacks for The Secret Garden and the small room was filled with mostly teenagers. There were a couple of younger children in the room, to read for some of the younger roles, one of whom was a boy, Noah, who was brand new to our theatre. Noah was only nine and didn’t know anyone, so he was naturally feeling a bit overwhelmed and very shy. As is our tradition, once we had all gathered, I gave everyone two minutes to get up and move around the room and introduce themselves to each other. “Make a new friend!” is my usual tag line. Many of the kids already know each other, so this is a kind of scrambly moment as kids move around the room in clusters, and run up to anyone they can find who doesn’t look familiar to say hello. It is fun and loud and friendly, but it also tends to stay on the socially safe side. Kids travel through the room with a friend or two, and then have new kids kind of join their group as they move about. They always make new students feel welcome and at home, but they never have to go too far outside of their own comfort zone to do so. It never costs them anything.
And then there’s Jonah.
When I called out “Make a new friend!” Jonah really took it to heart. He looked around the room and found little Noah, sitting under the piano. Noah had crawled there to get away from the noise and commotion. So Jonah got down on the floor and crawled right under there with him. He introduced himself. They shook hands. They chatted. And Jonah just continued to stay right there under the piano, getting to know his new friend. When I called out for everyone to take a seat, and the room re-settled with everyone in their previous seats, Jonah stayed under the piano with his new friend. And he stayed there with him until Noah was ready to come out. Because that’s what new friends do.
They looked so silly under there. Jonah was so big. And he had to squish himself up so small to fit. And Noah was so little sitting next to Jonah. And they were under a piano! But nothing about it was silly to Jonah. It was just what you do.
I love that Jonah got under that piano. But in order to get under the piano, he had to do something even more remarkable – and this is what made Jonah the truly special kid that he was. He had the simple, yet profound ability to look. Nobody else in the room saw Noah under the piano. Only Jonah.
There is plenty of noise in our world, plenty to take care of that is right in front of our eyes. It takes a pretty special human being to look beyond what is immediately available – to find the small, frightened child under the piano, the out-of-the-way problem, the one that will be a little bit harder to fix.
I am always tempted to play the “what if…” game with Jonah’s life and try to imagine what he would be doing now. It is impossible to know – he was just getting started. But I am confident that his path would not have been a straight line – there would have been detours along the way because his eyes and heart would always be open … and he wouldn’t have been afraid to follow where they led him.
A year ago, we dedicated our black box theatre to Jonah: the Jonah Mac Theatre. And in it sits a bright orange piano. It is a monument to Jonah’s kindness, playfulness, spontaneity, and ability to embrace the unknown, all of which were on full display that day at The Secret Garden callbacks.
I will also add here … little Noah is now a fully grown adult, and while I haven’t seen him crawl under many pianos since that day, he has embraced every one of these qualities! He had them in abundance as he moved through his childhood, and has carried them with him into adulthood. Jonah modeled, and Noah emulated … and the cycle goes on!
For any child at The Play Group Theatre who needs refuge when life gets overwhelming, there is a bright, friendly piano to sit under in the Jonah Mac Theatre! And for all those who pass through the Jonah Mac, that bright orange piano is the first thing you see … if there is a nervous child sitting underneath it, you won’t miss him! In Jonah’s honor, we’re making sure everyone is looking.
Billy adds: Both Jonah and Aiden found their own refuge at PGT. For each of them, someone most assuredly helped them to feel at home. Whoever it was, we know that Steven and Jill Abusch were behind it all. Modeling goodness, they expect goodness, and they get goodness … from every young person who is afforded the great privilege to grow up at The Play Group Theatre. Our family’s gratitude knows no bounds for all that Steven and Jill have done.
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We all miss that boy. It’ll probably always hurt that he’s gone. But he left us so much, and that’s what these writings express. Watch for them in emails and postings throughout the month. Our hope is that these stories will inspire you to make your gift at jonahmac.org/donate to help us help kids build whole, healthy lives.We continue to miss Jonah and to feel grateful: a) that we had him in our lives; and, b) that he’s inspired us to do good stuff in his name. We’re incredibly honored that you’ve joined us in our work and thank you in advance for donating to our Summer Campaign.
ALSO ALSO ALSO … The Jonah Maccabee Foundation is so proud to now be the beneficiaries of the proceeds from four exceptional musical recordings:
“So Is Life” was recorded by (ta da!) So Is Life, which includes Dan Nichols, Josh Nelson, Cantor Rosalie Boxt and Cantor Ellen Dreskin. It’s a magnificent album and is available to you as a download and on CD (if anyone still has a CD player). You can order So Is Life right here.
And now, you can order the music of Beged Kefet (which, for you youngsters out there, was a Jewish performance group that Ellen and Billy were in for a good 20 years or so). Beged Kefet recorded three albums, all now available to you! Our thanks to the members of Beged Kefet — Beth Sher, Cantor Leon Sher, Cantor Riki Lippitz, Cantor Ellen Dreskin, Cantor Benjie Ellen Schiller, Rabbi Les Bronstein and Rabbi Billy Dreskin — for allowing us to use the proceeds from their three recordings to help kids build whole, healthy lives. You can order your Beged Kefet digital downloads here. We’re also streaming, so check us out on Spotify, Amazon Music or wherever you listen to music!