This month, we caught up with The Workshop, an arts fellowship that features the work of BIJoCSM (Black, Indigenous, Jews of Color, Sephardi and Mizrahi Jews). The Workshop was founded in 2020 by Kendell Pinkney, a theater artist and rabbi, to provide community and career support for fellow JoC creatives when interpersonal connections and networks were sorely missing. At that time, Talia Escobedo was in the first year of her MFA in theater management at Columbia University. In 2021, while researching Jewish theater, she came across Pinkney and The Workshop on Instagram and reached out. Soon after, a partnership was formed: Escobedo became a production associate at The Workshop, organizing logistics and events, while Pinkney focused on mentorship for the program.
“The Workshop is North America’s first arts and culture fellowship that foregrounds and features the work of BIPOC Jewish artists and also supports Sephardi and Mizrahi creatives,” said Pinkney.
Artists across disciplines and at different career stages can engage in The Workshop; Pinkney emphasized that people are welcome to get in where they fit in, and access personalized support based on their own interests and projects.
The inspiration for The Workshop came to Pinkney in his final year of rabbinical school at the Jewish Theological Seminary. Pinkney recalls his time at JTS fondly, but as the first Black student to matriculate through the program, he knew he wanted to expand his community beyond the program.
“In the process of being at JTS I was really cognizant of, on the one hand, that I had a really good experience there, and that people were very kind and generous to me,” said Pinkney. “But also I had this feeling of … this is my community, but it’s also not quite my full community.”
Pinkney had a vision of integrating his background as a theater artist in his Jewish scholarship, and so began to search for Jewish organizations that might help him in this endeavor. About a year later, Pinkney formed The Workshop as a pilot program in partnership with various organizations, including JTS, Usdan Summer Camp for the Arts, JCC Harlem, and Reboot.
“In the midst of the pandemic, Jews of Color and Mizrahi creatives needed community,” Pinkney adds. “So we started building that community and then organizing among other Jewish organizations that had resources and were interested in the work that we were doing.” Once Pinkney secured funding and support, The Workshop was formed.
Talia Escobedo was on a similar journey seeking Jewish organizations and individuals that shared her vision for Jewish theater and storytelling. While Pinkney was attempting to merge theater arts into his rabbinical education, Escobedo was the only Jewish student in her MFA program in theater management, and found herself struggling to merge Judaism into her artistic community.
“I found myself in this weird position working in the [theater] industry, because although there are so many Jewish artists and producers at the helm, no one really talks about…producing shows specifically about Judaism,” said Escobedo. “I felt like this kind of rift, in terms of my own personal identity and my work life. They just felt like they kept going farther and farther apart.”
Searching for a way to merge theater management and Judaism led Escobedo to The Workshop. Now, Escobedo and Pinkney work together to expand Jewish storytelling beyond its traditional confines.
“I’m a Mexican Jew. My grandfather was a Holocaust survivor from Lithuania. My whole family kind of settled into Mexico afterwards. So those two parts of my identity have also been something that I’m always looking to kind of put on a platform and talk about,” Escobedo said. “I find that very often in the Jewish theater world, you’re getting very singular narratives. I was really excited to explore what it would look like to not focus on just another Fiddler on the Roof revival, or only Holocaust stories, as they are often the only Jewish stories we tell to large audiences. Those stories are incredibly powerful but there are also so many others that are going untold.”
The Workshop is currently in the second year of its fellowship programming, in which four to eight fellows form a year-long cohort. Already, its vision has evolved beyond the core year-long fellowship experience. In its first year, The Workshop also partnered with George Street Playhouse, a professional theater in New Jersey, which was producing a musical of Walk on the Moon. Based on a movie of the same title, the play takes place on an imagined Jewish commune in the Catskills in 1969, the year of the moon landing. This led to the creation of the Walk on the Moon Fellows, a four-month fellowship that placed three BIPOC (two of whom were JoC) creatives located in New York and New Jersey in creative departments to gain mentorship, work experience and equitable pay from Walk on the Moon production. “We don’t believe in people doing work for free,” said Pinkney.
This expanded fellowship offering is in part thanks to funding and mentorship The Workshop gained from JoCI. Pinkney was part of the first cohort of the JoCI Incubator and described it as an early experience of genuine JoC community: “Being part of the JoCI Incubator, the first pilot program, there was a sense of belonging as a Jew of Color and as someone who was kind of shepherding an idea towards greater realization. So I felt very affirmed and very supported by the JoCI staff,” said Pinkney.
Escobedo, who handles the logistical side of The Workshop, described how JoCI’s support led to theater partnerships in the Bay Area and with the Shakespeare and Co. company in Lennox, Massachusetts. “Our funding from JoCI really helps us get the word out and expand and have a bit more of a national impact,” said Escobedo.
Pinkney’s time in the JoCI Incubator was one of several crucial mentorship experiences that helped him define his vision for The Workshop. “I want to speak to one thing that has made all the difference in my life. And that is mentorship,” said Pinkney. “It is worth its weight in gold. I cannot emphasize it enough.” Pinkney described a “theory of mentorship” that has formed over the years: a diverse array of mentors, those who provide support financially, emotionally, or career-wise, is crucial in developing the skillset and network necessary to realize a mission, or achieve professional goals, especially as individuals with marginalized identities.
Supporting systems for mentorship has material impacts on the field for JoC. “I often like to say artists are the new rabbis. So if it’s not already one of your priorities to fund Jewish arts and culture, you might want to make it one. There’s a Jewish cultural renaissance happening. It’s substantial. There are a ton of creatives who are interested in exploring the texts and traditions of their heritage,” said Pinkney. “Even just seeing our fellows grow in their self-understanding, and seeing that reflected in their art, is just mind blowing.”