by Annette van de Kamp-Wright, Jewish Press Editor
Saragail Benjamin was born and raised in Omaha. Her parents are the late Ruth and Daniel Katzman. Her dad’s two sisters, aunts Charlotte Zipursky and Sylvia Jess and uncle Morley Zipursky are still in Omaha, as are her cousin, Jim Zipursky and his wife, Sally, and cousin Linda Jess, who is one of Sylvia’s children.
What’s your theater background?
I loved doing theater at the Omaha JCC, mostly at the old JCC in downtown Omaha — by the time the current JCC was built, I was away at college. My biggest role, when I was 14, was Anne in The Diary of Anne Frank. This was such an important experience for me. I was the same age then that Anne was when she wrote her famous diary. What if I had been born in another time, another place? I wondered. What might have happened to me? I felt a weighty responsibility; bringing Anne’s courageous, loving spirit to the stage. I learned so much about theater, working as a team, and about Jewish history.
I was in many other productions at the JCC. It was a fantastic outlet for me — I was never cast in anything at the Omaha Playhouse or at Central High School. Without the JCC, I would have felt left out, disappointed, and frustrated. With it, I was nurtured.
How did that shape what you have done since then?
With the confidence I gained at the JCC, I left home my junior year of high school, 1969, to study theater at Interlochen Arts Academy in Interlochen, Michigan. I interned for a summer at the Magic Theater in Omaha’s Old Market, performing alongside young professionals.
Where did you go after high school?
On graduating from Omaha Central High School in 1971, I went to Sarah Lawrence College in Bronxville, NY, and majored in theater and literature. A highlight — I was the only freshman in a school-sponsored musical in a commercial run at La Mama ETC, an Off-Broadway theater in NYC.
I seriously doubt that I would have had the chutzpah to seek out and get all these early opportunities had I not been given the chance to spread my wings at the JCC. I’m very grateful.
After college, I did summer stock, off-Off Broadway, cabaret work and club dates. Gravitating more and more toward music and songwriting, I worked for years as a piano bar singer all over NYC, and was a long term member of the BMI-Lehman Engel Musical Theater Writing Workshop — birthplace of A Chorus Line, Titanic and Little Shop of Horrors. I had just started getting some musical theater pieces of my own produced and published when I became a mom.
Did becoming a mother change your focus?
I wanted to be with my kids, so I wrote a one-woman show for little kids which I could perform working around my own kids’ schedules. I taught early childhood music and worked as a Teaching Artist for Lincoln Center Institute and the Westchester Arts Council, presenting arts enrichment programs in schools. A children’s novel I wrote, My Dog Ate It, was published in hard cover and in paperback.
How did the drumming start?
In about 1995, working for Lincoln Center, I had my students playing homemade percussion instruments in small groups to help them learn the mechanics of ensemble playing. Meanwhile, I had just started hearing about corporations using ropes courses and other outdoor activities for teambuilding. Watching my students with their homemade drums, I made a connection — I realized that group drumming could be a powerful metaphor and tool for corporate team building.
As my kids got older and more independent, I studied drum circle facilitation and traditional teambuilding training and landed gigs leading group drumming sessions for global giants like Deloitte, Reebok, Adidas, Reckitt Benckiser, and Sanofi Pasteur. I brought the drums into my work with kids in schools and camps and to people of all ages dealing with challenges like cancer, hemophilia, MS, grief, and mental illness.
What do you find attractive about it?
I love leading group drumming. I’ve worked with thousands of people in the Northeastern US and in the Midwest. Drumming is a great teaching tool; it’s also incredibly fun. Anyone can play a drum. It helps people get out of their heads, no matter what they’re going through, so they can express their musicality, creativity and joy. It’s always a miracle to me to watch a face contorted with worry transformed by the simplest act, banging on a drum.
What are you working on at the moment?
My most recent project is Saragail’s play-along app. It is a music video and web-based app to benefit kids with cancer and other illnesses, and it grew out of all my work experiences — performing, writing, teaching, drumming. It came from the sadness I feel when I work with special needs groups, and my wanting to help. And it came from growing up in a family where tzedakah was not just talked about, but was a constant of everyday life. My grandparents, parents, aunts, and uncle were leaders in Jewish philanthropy, supporting Israel, the local community, always working with the community to do more and more. My mom loved to dance, so she volunteered, teaching creative movement to psychiatric patients. Aunt Sylvia read for the blind and tutored adults with poor reading skills. She and Aunt Charlotte volunteered for hospice. Bubby always made room for strangers and newcomers at her holiday table, welcoming everyone like family. Zaydie, who quit school after tenth grade so he could work to help support his family, funded a history chair at the University of Nebraska.
In Hebrew School at Beth El Synagogue, I learned that the highest form of tzedakah is giving of oneself. I looked around me and saw this everywhere in my family — I was surrounded by people I loved, all teaching me through their actions that giving from the heart, from the core of one’s being, is an essential part of a meaningful life. I was always so proud of my family’s contributions. I wanted to honor this legacy by finding my own way of giving back.
My core is music, that’s what I have to give. Throughout my life I’ve donated programs to synagogues, hospitals, homes for the elderly, special needs groups, and not-for-profits. But I had an idea for something bigger. I needed funding. My mom, who sadly passed in 2009, left me her jewelry. I gave some pieces to friends and family then decided to celebrate Mom’s memory by selling the rest to finance the making of a music video of a song I wrote, based on my experiences working with kids with cancer. I enlisted volunteers from my town, Manchester, VT, to appear in the video. I designed a web-based, interactive app that would allow anyone, anywhere — getting chemo, transfused, feeling scared, lonely, or in pain — to experience the therapeutic joy of drumming. It’s made for kids, but people of all ages are telling me they love it. The app works so users can drum along with my music video or any YouTube video. It’s free for anyone who needs help, everyone else; we’re asking for donations — even $2, price of a typical app, can help us help kids. Over 700 people have seen the video since January; the number is growing steadily. Children’s Hospital of Dartmouth Hitchcock in Lebanon, NH, one of New England’s premier healthcare facilities, is now using it in their Child Life Department, and more hospitals are coming on board.
I’m grateful to Omaha for my early experiences and the values I learned there. I look forward to making and sharing more video and music projects with you all. Onward!
Interested in finding out more? You can find the app at: www.SaragailBenjamin.com/HelpKids.