There was a time as a teenager when Jason Loewith aspired to become a rabbi. These days, as artistic director of Olney Theatre Center in Montgomery County since 2009, he sees himself as a secular rabbi, calling on his upbringing immersed in Judaism’s Conservative movement while growing up in Fairfield, Conn.
In fact, in his theater program biography, Loewith unselfconsciously owns his Jewish background, noting that his mom was the first woman in Connecticut to serve as president of a Conservative synagogue. Loewith, 53, described himself in his youth as “super Jew.” He was active in United Synagogue Youth both in his hometown and internationally. He participated in Soviet Jewry rallies and worked as an activity director at a Jewish home for the aged. By his senior year in high school, he joined the international board of USY, spent a summer in Israel on a USY Pilgrimage program, and then came home wearing a kippah daily.
“That was not an easy thing to do in a public school,” he remarked.
The Loewith family enjoyed taking the train to New York on weekends to attend the latest Broadway shows. And the theater bug bit Jason. “I acted all the way through junior high school,” he said, recalling why he left theater in high school. “Something terrible happened: My voice changed. So I stopped getting leading roles and I was such a diva I said, ‘I’m not gonna be part of your show and play in the ensemble.’”
At Brown University, he earned an English degree with a focus on dramatic literature and began to devote his energies toward theater and away from Judaism. “Two things happened [in college]: I began to realize that I was gay and if I was going to have a family, it was not going to be the kind of family that I saw represented at the synagogues I grew up in,” he said, noting that while he didn’t feel welcomed by traditional Judaism as a gay man, “I’m sure part of it was my own fear of coming out.”
He also realized that a life in the theater is at odds with observing Shabbat. And “the High Holidays never cease to happen at the very most important moment of trying to put a show together in the fall!”
Loewith ultimately built his life as a theater producer.
Under Loewith’s artistic direction, the nonprofit Olney Theatre has presented a panoply of productions, including new works that are meant to initiate important social, political, economic and moral conversations on stage and, of course, with audiences.
While the theater may be beloved and best known for its family-friendly musicals — coming this month is “Disney’s Beauty and the Beast” — Loewith has taken risky and unexpected approaches to casting, direction and repertoire. Recently completed, “The Thanksgiving Play” by Larissa FastHorse was a pointed satire on how to stage a holiday show that respects the experience of Native Americans when no Native Americans are involved in the cast. And “Beauty and the Beast” stars Evan Ruggiero, a tap dancer who lost his leg to cancer.
And next year, Loewith brings to Olney “AD 16” — a tale of teenage Mary Magdalene, who falls in love with the nice Jewish boy next door, a kid named Jesus. He said, “Who I am as a Jew has a great deal to do with why I chose to do that play. All of the ideas in Judaism that speak to empathy, that speak to understanding, that [allow us to] think of Jesus as a really great rabbi … can be found within Jewish texts.”
While not affiliated with a synagogue, Loewith, who lives in Bethesda, said that his work is not so distant from his original rabbinic aspirations. He recalled a conversation he had with prominent theater director George Wolf.
“I asked him if he thought directing was an art form. And he said, ‘No. Playwriting is an art. Directing is a craft. And producing is a service, as in a service to the community.’ At that moment a light bulb went on in my head,” Loewith said. “That was when it all came full circle and I realized that theater is a service [to the community] and I am a secular rabbi.”