Rivka Eilfort is an 18-year-old chassidic singer and songwriter, whose parents serve as Chabad-Lubavitch emissaries in southern California. She sings deep, mystical lyrics while playing the guitar like a natural star.

“Rivka was always attracted to music,” says her mother, Nechama Eilfort. “She composed on the piano and guitar from a young age. She breathed music.”

Eilfort wants to pursue a music career and study music professionally. She dreams of performing concerts for Jewish girls and recording CDs, but opportunities have typically been scarce for observant Jewish female artists who adhere to Judaism’s laws of modesty and, as such, do not perform in front of men.

That is, until a groundbreaking new program, the Tzohar Seminary for Chassidus and the Arts, opened its doors this fall in Pittsburgh, Pa. Its first group of 11 talented young women is literally singing its praises, as well as dancing, painting, writing, performing and filming.

Eilfort, who attends Tzohar, is studying traditional Jewish texts like most of the girls with whom she went to high school, but she’s also developing her passion for music. She is already learning new skills at Tzohar to help her along the way: reading music, videography, music theory, and voice lessons by a professional opera singer.

“Girls are dying to play music,” says her mother, who serves as the rebbetzin at Chabad of La Costa in Carlsbad, Calif. “They should be living it. The school’s goal is to take the talent. They can still be chassidic, creative and modest.”

Around the world, most Jewish day school girls attend seminary the year after their high school graduation. They embark on a year of spiritual self-discovery, often away from home, while they gain skills in teaching and learning Torah.

Chabad Lubavitch–run seminaries exist in such countries as Israel, Australia, Italy and Canada, and in cities throughout the United States, but this is the first time a seminary is integrating the deeper, inner dimensions of Chassidic thought with the creative arts.

“Tzohar Seminary, like a window, will let in the light of creativity into the students’ lives,” explains Amy Guterson, the school’s founder and director, who chose a name for her institution by looking at the Hebrew word used to describe the window and precious stone that brought light to Noah’s ark.

“Together with learning Chassidic thought and their sense of purpose, the students’ G‑d-given talents will help project the beauty of Torah to the world in a new way,” she adds.

By offering college-comparable courses in arts such as writing, music, dance, fine arts, theater and filmmaking, as well as classes in chassidic philosophy with notable teachers, Tzohar is helping its students develop their skills in a creative yet sacred environment.

Guterson is a Pittsburgh artist who studied theater at Stern College for Women in New York, and then earned her graduate degree in acting from The New Actors Workshop. She studied with acclaimed actress Uta Hagen and respected director Mike Nichols, was a member of Actor’s Equity, and performed off-Broadway.

Her journey led her from the non-religious theater world to the Chabad community in Pittsburgh, where she became involved in creative community projects.

Tzohar founder Amy Guterson believes her seminary is filling the need to create venues for chassidic female artists.
Tzohar founder Amy Guterson believes her seminary is filling the need to create venues for chassidic female artists.

New Opportunities

In the past, Guterson struggled with what she saw as a restriction for religious and female artists: not only couldn’t she grace the stage on the Sabbath, but she was restricted in performing for a general mixed audience.

Although she originally felt she had to make a choice between art and religion, Guterson eventually embraced both seemingly opposite worlds by realizing that art can complement or come from Judaism itself.

“The limitations of not being able to act in the theater world on Shabbat made me create my own opportunities, and become a writer, director and producer as well,” she relates.

Among her listed achievements was creating the award-winning festival film, Becoming Rachel, and heading a diverse all-women’s theater group in her community, called Kol Isha, which created original productions based on issues of Jewish womanhood and Jewish unity.

“There’s something in women-for-women performance pieces,” Guterson enthuses. “What I saw before as limitations, I now see as directing me down my path. We should be creating performances and events to reach women across all spectrums.”

Guterson believes her seminary is filling the need to create venues for chassidic female artists. In addition to plays, videos and artistic projects, her students will share with the community: they will also teach after-school arts at the Jewish day schools, and teach Judaism through the arts in local Hebrew schools.

The seminary is also helping to connect the community of Pittsburgh, by serving as a focal point for many local artists and writers now practicing Judaism. There’s an impressive array of faculty with artistic and academic backgrounds who serve as mentors and teachers to Tzohar students, whether in the classically Judaic subjects or in the arts.

Guterson pooled together teachers from nearby, such as filmmaking instructor Leibel Cohen, creator of the popular Agent Emes DVD series for Jewish children, and Rabbi Shais Taub, director of Judaism website Chabad.org’s multimedia portal Jewish.TV and author of the successful teaching tools The Map of Tanya and Soul Maps. Leah-Perl Shollar, an educator and published author, is teaching creative writing with Jewish sources.

Guterson, who is teaching theater, sees her role as “nurturing students’ talents.” She wants her students to integrate learning, creativity and life with the themes they explore in works of Jewish law, Torah commentaries, history, and the talks and discourses of the Lubavitcher rebbes.

The school’s principal is Rabbi Aaron Herman, who is known for his teaching skills and development of curricula, including courses for the Rohr Jewish Learning Institute. After spending 13 years as a Chabad rabbi in Raleigh, N.C., Herman returned to his hometown of Pittsburgh as Tzohar was getting started.

“All the [Judaic] classes, we hope, will be an inspiration for the arts classes,” says Herman. “Students can take a new idea that they learn and apply it. It shows an integration of an idea if you can express it in a different manner.”

Backing the seminary are Rabbi Yisroel and Blumie Rosenfeld, the head Chabad-Lubavitch emissaries of Western Pennsylvania, who function as the school’s spiritual mentors. Witnessing Guterson’s success with many projects for the Yeshiva Schools of Pittsburgh, Blumie Rosenfeld admired Guterson’s new concept for the arts seminary.

“The girls feel they need to use their talents to express themselves, and Amy is giving them a chance to use it for holiness,” explains Rosenfeld. “It can have a profound impact on their lives and on future generations.”

Rochel Goldsmith, who was raised in Iowa, decided to attend the seminary because her mother is an artist and she grew up in an artistic home. Wanting to pursue a career in the arts, Goldsmith originally planned to attend the Pratt Institute, and then heard about Tzohar.

“Arts and chassidic thought are both big parts of my life,” says the pianist, fine artist and writer. “The seminary is teaching me how to mesh the two. In my head it was either one or the other, and so this opportunity jumped out at me.”

Her mother, Shoshana Goldsmith, says she wanted to send her daughter to a seminary where she could develop her artistic talents and also nurture her spiritual growth.

“There’s a crisis today that education is not meeting our needs,” says Goldsmith. “Tzohar caters to the needs of every person. You don’t have to fit into their mold; they’re just enhancing what you already have.”

“Our hopes in creating the Tzohar Seminary are to show girls they can find a place within their world to use their talents, and that they are meant to use them to communicate Torah and Chassidic thought to a greater audience, and open a world where creativity is used for the service of G‑d,” says Guterson. “I believe women are leading the way.”