Photo courtesy of MJCCA

Linda Danzig’s smile lights the room when she talks about her time onstage with Jerry’s Habima Theatre, Georgia’s only theatrical company directed and produced by professionals that features actors with special needs.

Earlier this year, the company, based at the Marcus Jewish Community Center of Atlanta (MJCCA), marked its 24th season with the staging of “The Wizard of Oz.” Danzig, age 66, played two roles, Robot Person and Jitterbug.

Danzig says she’s taken part in the company’s programs for 19 years. It only took one person (years ago) who suggested “people with disabilities could [and should] act.” And, immediately, Danzig decided to “give it a try.”

Since that moment, Danzig says she’s been in every show. Today, Jerry’s Habima Theatre plays to sell-out crowds.

With learning disabilities or physical challenges, Danzig, likes to see people do more than what’s expected of them. Her colleagues on stage have Down syndrome, autism and other physical challenges (such as vision impairment) to overcome. She works at getting her theatrical friends to “come out of their shell,” she said.

Danzig learned to the best of her ability to overcome a speech impediment and some learning disabilities. She is proud of the nine years she worked at Chick-fil-A.

Currently, she also stays active by volunteering at Brighton Gardens of Buckhead, an assisted living facility. She said she “talks to the seniors and helps them with their projects,” if she’s able.

Susie Davidow, center, shares an onstage moment with Katherine Burnett,
Shawn Wyatt and other Jerry’s Habima Theatre actors as they rehearse for their 24th annual musical production, “The Wizard of Oz.”
Photo by Phil Mosier

Former special education teacher Susie Davidow has worked with the MJCCA programs for more than 16 years. At age 70, she’s already in retirement, but hopes to continue participating with some projects and volunteering as often as she can.

But, “Jerry’s Habima Theatre has my heart,” said Davidow in a telephone interview.  The 2017 season of eight performances had just ended the night before.

The theater production is just one of the activities in the Blonder Family Department for Special Needs. Today, the Blonder Family Department comes through a generous endowment by (the late) Jerry and Lois Blonder.

The theater program, named for Jerry, creates a place for individuals of all backgrounds and abilities to socialize, learn, grow, and deepen their connections to one another and the community.

“The word “habima” means “the stage” in Hebrew,” said Davidow. But for Jerry’s group, it means much more.

Danzig agrees.

Acting, she says, is one way to keep her from watching too much TV, and allows her to get to know other people. These are people who Danzig and her stage friends may not have otherwise met.

Every performance includes local actors and other stage professionals who offer to work with people with special needs. The audience’s reward is the opportunity “to open their eyes, ears and hearts,” said Davidow.

When asked about Danzig, Davidow said, “I adore her and she’s incredibly kind. She always takes time to ask about my family, and looks out for others, whether on or off the stage. She’s a wonderful advocate for people with special needs to have more opportunities.”

Judi Kanne is a public health communications consultant and contributing writer to Atlanta Senior Life.