It’s a rare thing to meet someone who is “larger than life,” but that’s my sense of Esther Rachel Russell—all 5 feet 2 inches of her. That so much energy, vivacity and sheer accomplishment could be crammed into such a small package is testament to the miraculous ways of our Creator.
When you meet Esther Rachel, you take in her aesthetics—she is an artist, and her exquisitely offbeat personal style immediately wows you. But she doesn’t let you spend too much time on her glamor; rather, she instantly turns the tables so that effortlessly, seamlessly, all attention has been focused on you. How are you? How are your kids, your husband, your job, your latest stab at blogging? What are you reading, and what insight can you give over so that Esther Rachel can add it to her database of knowledge?
You are so immediately comfortable with her, you find yourself confiding your deepest secrets. You are struck with how quickly the normal “getting to know you” stages pass, and how completely you feel “known” by her. This ability is born of a personality whose focus is open and available for the other person.
A native of Los Angeles, Esther Rachel has traveled extensively, bringing the transformational gift of laughter and comedy to audiences nationwide. She is creator and facilitator of “Joy Breaks Barriers,” a series of improvisational workshops for thinkers, innovators, creators, financiers, educators, health-service professionals, patients, cancer survivors, women, men, teens and children—anyone who desires to rattle their right brain and break through barriers for breakthrough insights.
It is not unusual to walk into one of Esther Rachel’s workshops and hear the group roaring with laughter. And I mean roaring! It may be the result of the “emotional symphony exercise,” or a gibberish conversation, or Esther Rachel’s outrageous “distinctions of laughter” exposition. Grown men, and sometimes even rabbis, have been spotted doing somersaults on the floor. But what is so wonderful is that the audience gets a chance to experience firsthand breaking through their own barriers. You might hear Esther Rachel say, “This exercise is for anyone who would never do something like this in front of an audience. If that’s you, come on up!” And these folks, most often, prove to be the most hilarious.
Esther Rachel draws from her professional background in theater and improvisation to create many of the exercises in her workshops. By definition, improvisation means “creating in the moment without the ability to revise or evaluate.” Improvisers practice getting out of their own way so that they can be present to what the moment holds, remain flexible, listen deeply and trust their unique voice.
Esther Rachel expounds, “It is a fallacy to believe that all people who create have a special gift. It is not always talent, but courage, that allows one to excel on stage as well as in life.” Esther Rachel uses improvisation as a therapeutic tool that helps people learn to deal with real-life challenges more skillfully and with more joy.
With a master’s degree in theater from NYU, Esther Rachel’s first job out of college was as assistant producer/writer on the illustrious television show Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous, where she interviewed Hollywood’s most captivating celebrities. However, her true love has always been the theater, where she recognized early on the magical process of comedy improvisation and its capacity to break through barriers.
Esther Rachel’s comedy improv career started at the famous Groundlings Theater in Los Angeles, where she had the privilege of working with tremendously talented comedic actors, many of whom went on to Saturday Night Live and their own television shows. A self-proclaimed spiritual seeker, Esther Rachel was drawn by a higher calling. She left the glitter of Hollywood and traveled through India and Israel before settling into her life as a chassidic wife and mother.
While her theatrical bio is impressive, Esther Rachel is more passionate about where she’s headed than about where she’s been.
“My work became less about me—standing on stage, making people laugh—and more about supporting the audience to awaken their own creative genius and the laughter in their own souls. This became much more exciting to me. Life has become so complicated and overwhelming that most of us struggle to remember who we truly are. Joy is our birthright!
“G‑d created the world first with darkness, and then with light, and the essential mission of our lives is to reveal the light and let it shine. There has never been a workshop I have led that hasn’t been successful. I can say that confidently, because everyone loves to laugh. Even those people who by nature are more melancholy, or even depressed, love to laugh—it’s just that their laughter has not yet been revealed. It takes more work to uncover it, but it’s definitely there.”
Esther Rachel asserts that laughter redeems us from the dull routine of everyday life, and it elevates the way people experience themselves and the world around them. “It is the music of the soul, and is limitless in its ability to reach people. Like G‑d is limitless, so is laughter. So when I give my workshops, I trust in the G‑dliness in people to break through. It just needs a little push—I guess I’m sort of like a midwife.”
Bringing laughter into the workplace has proven tremendously valuable for Russell’s career. There are intellectual and pragmatic applications for the value of laughter and role play.
“Once I gave a workshop at IBM with a group of brainiacs—this was when cloud computing first came on the scene. Needless to say, I was nervous about how my workshop would go over in this very serious milieu, with engineers from Russia, India and the Orient, who were totally trapped in their left brain—or so I thought. Willing to take risks, however, they played along with me, and they turned out to be naturally gifted improvisers! In order to create this new cloud technology, these scientists would need to access their right brain and think out of the box. Einstein said, ‘You can never solve a problem on the (same) level on which it was created.’ I have always been intrigued by the point at which science becomes art, and that day at IBM, I had the opportunity to actually watch Einstein’s axiom in action.”
Scientist Sharon Begley writes in her book Train Your Mind, Change Your Brain that the more you implement laughter, the more you are hardwiring the neural pathways in your brain for creative, out-of-the-box thinking.
A New York Times and Business Week bestseller, A Whole New Mind—Why Right-Brainers Will Rule the Future supports the notion that humor embodies many of the right hemisphere’s most powerful attributes: the ability to place situations in context, to view the big picture, and to combine differing perspectives into new alignments. And that also strengthens the notion that right-brain thinking is an essential quality for the corporate, as well as the everyday, world.
Scientists, Wall Street guys, seniors, special-needs adults, kids, exhausted caregivers, oncology patients and Williamsburg chassidim are among Esther Rachel’s favorite clients. Why? She loves any population that is underserviced, overwhelmed and laugh-deprived.
During the time that the Passaic community was grieving at the devastating diagnosis of our beloved Simcha Esther Gershan (now of blessed memory), Esther Rachel focused herself on what she could do to help her dear friend. If you log onto the courageous, heart-wrenching memoir Ms. Gershan produced as a tribute to her own faith and trust in G‑d, you will see, at two and a half minutes into the video, the remarkable powers of Esther Rachel Russell to rescue, uplift and transport to the stratosphere a woman enfeebled by chemotherapy, literally watching her life pass before her eyes.
“Doing laughter therapy with clients who know their time on this plane is limited is incredibly empowering. The body may be finishing its earthly journey, but the soul is soaring onward. The feeling of eternity is palpable when a dying person laughs. The laughter I shared with Simcha Esther will bond us through time.”
Dearest to her heart are the overworked housewives and moms who frequent the Jewish Women’s Circles she visits at Chabad Houses around the country. These women provide the inspiration for her favorite comedic character, The Suburban Mystic, a housewife who transforms darkness into light at the supermarket, the PTA and the dinner table.
Herself the mother of five humorous, exuberant children, and the wife of comedian Reuven Russell, Esther Rachel is constantly juggling private school tuitions, teenage dramas and baseball leagues, and she knows full well the meaning of physical and emotional depletion. She says, with love, “Mothers are the selfless heroes of our time. They need to release tension, nourish themselves and experience their lives as elevated. It’s a challenge to see that sanctity through the diapers and sleepless nights. For this reason, laughter and joy are essential to our lives.”
The next frontier for Esther Rachel is the criminal justice system. “There is something so challenging about penetrating the darkness of prisons. Because I believe so deeply in the healing power of laughter, I am certain there is a place for laughter as therapy, to open the hearts of convicted criminals, so they can access who they truly are. Because, and this applies to all of us, we’ve forgotten who we truly are. There is too much schmutz that covers our G‑dly essence, obscuring joyfulness and goodness.”
The healing power of laughter therapy is not unique to Esther Rachel’s domain. Although she has been practicing laughter therapy for several years, the wisdom of laughter as medicine has been around for much longer, and is gaining considerable recognition in the medical world.
“Laughter is a form of internal jogging,” says Dr. Lee Berk. “Your heart rate elevates, blood pressure increases, muscles contract, and oxygen levels rise. It exercises the lungs and stimulates the circulatory system. Hearty laughter causes full action of the diaphragm, the main muscle of respiration. The whole cardiovascular system benefits from robust laughter. Practiced regularly, laughter can change the areas in the brain that release stress hormones, endorphins, and can actually transform the entire neurochemistry of the brain.”
In a discourse on the Torah portion of Ki Teitzei (5748), the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, of righteous memory, tells us, “Simcha poretz geder (joy breaks through all barriers), including the barriers of exile, and has the unique potential to bring about the ultimate redemption. This joy will surely lead to the ultimate joy, the rejoicing of the redemption, when our mouths will be filled with laughter.”
If it’s true that joy breaks through all barriers, then for Esther Rachel, there are no limits!