Brains, wisdom, courage and a home  ...   Blake McCabe (left) and Hal Halper (right) have it all.

Brains, wisdom, courage and a home …
Blake McCabe (left) and Hal Halper (right) have it all.

“There’s no place like home,” says twelve year old Romi Treger, a sixth grade Hebrew speaker at the Eshkol Elementary School in Beersheva. She clicks the heels of her glittery Dorothy slippers three times, closes her eyes and tilts her chin upwards before she repeats the play’s concluding line twice more. The audience – the majority of which is made up of pupils and teaching staff – is already on its feet. Roars of approval drown Treger’s final words.

The musical was edited and produced in English by Hal Halper and Blake McCabe who are currently on the MASA ITF (Israel Teaching Fellows) year program in Beersheva. In theory, they are supposed to devote twenty five hours each week to teaching English to small groups of Hebrew speaking pupils but for the last five months, the pair have been working overtime with budding singers and actors to prepare them for Monday’s gala production of the Wizard of Oz.

“I came on MASA with three goals” says Halper (25) who has recently secured a place for next year in graduate studies in Theatre Education at Emerson University, Boston. “To strengthen my connection with Israel, gain teaching experience and produce a play. But to be honest, by doing this, I’ve attained all three in one shot. My greatest satisfaction has come from witnessing the transformation of children with little confidence and self –worth into just the opposite.” Halper, who has been acting for fifteen years, is no stranger to directing although his experience in doing so was at university level back in SUNY Albany for two years. “This experience has been truly miraculous, one that I will never forget! I will take the building blocks I’ve discovered throughout The Wizard of Oz to help me in future productions I hope to direct back in the States,” he says.

“This is a perfect example of meaningful learning,” says school principal Sima Etedgi, a mix of pride and professionalism in her voice. “There is no way that this level of English could have been reached by our sixth graders in any other way. The students have not only increased their level of English comprehension and understanding tremendously, but have gained a trait that will help them as they grow and explore the world: confidence! Our pupils at all grade levels understand that having MASA fellows at the school is like being presented with the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow!” In fact, after watching the dress rehearsals on Sunday morning, Etedgi invited two neighboring schools to the 10am showing the following day.

Following auditions in early November 2013, Eitan Saar was assigned the role of the scarecrow. “I felt a bit weird about it to begin with,” he confides sheepishly. “But my family convinced me to accept the part. Bracha (Blake McCabe), Hal and my English teacher Orit helped me learn my lines and it’s been great fun ever since.” Tin Man, Shai Melamod, whose voice stunned the audience with its operatic trill, grins like he just finished first place in a marathon. “Today I feel as though I’m dreaming,” he says. “I’ve always wanted to be a lead singer. Just watch this space … you’ll see me on TV one day. I’m going to apply for The Voice and the X Factor as soon as I’m old enough!”

In contrast to the twenty four sixth graders, Daniel Lavi who is in the third grade, was chosen for the role of Toto the Dog. “My English lessons aren’t at the same time as the others, so Bracha often came to practice my lines with me after school hours, recently for up to three extra hours a week.”

With a degree behind her in Music, Sociology and Anthropology from Mansfield University, Pennsylvania, McCabe (24) became an ideal partner in the fulfillment of Harper’s dream even though this was to be the first time that either one of them had ever produced a musical. Often, while Halper trained the students in acting techniques, McCabe worked one on one with the lead singers’ vocal ranges, ensuring all the time that they gained skills that they could take with them after the show. However, this division of roles wasn’t always adhered to. “We had to compromise together and help each other. Sometimes Hal worked on dancing while I helped students learn to act out their lines in order to better connect with their characters so we both gained experience in all areas,” she explains. “Never in my life have I felt so proud of the achievements of others. These kids deserve all the praise, not us!”

English teacher Orit Lev disagrees. “When the MASA fellows weren’t teaching in the classroom or working with the students on the show, they met with the art teacher, technical staff and the principal to design sets, costumes, props, ads and invitations, and to work out the details of the show. Outside of school too, the pair planned rehearsals and created activities to help the students learn their lines and songs with the aid of games, tongue twisters and even flashcards. Bracha and Hal definitely deserve most of the credit for the final product!”

Quite unlike the scarecrow, the tin man and the lion who respectively require a brain, a heart and courage from the Wizard of Oz, Halper and McCabe arrived in Israel last September already well equipped in these areas. And as for Dorothy’s request for home, by the looks on their beaming faces as they modestly accept high-fives and bear-hugs from children and adults alike, it looks like the two of them have found just that right here at the Eshkol School of Beersheva.