You probably know of Kerry Bar-Cohn by her stage name, ‘Rebbetzin Tap’, the wildly-popular Orthodox Jewish entertainer who took the frum female world by storm a few years back.
By day, Kerry works as a chiropractor, lives in Bet Shemesh and is raising a family of four boys, aged 10-20 years old. But by night? Kerry is on a mission to transform how creative, religious Jewish women can interact with their audiences – and inspire the next generation. Here’s Kerry’s story, in her own words.
THE BIRTH OF REBBETZIN TAP
“Growing up, I was a child performer, and I wasn’t frum. I starred in an off-Broadway production of Annie when I was 10, and I originally started acting because I wanted to bring some joy to the world. But the whole acting profession was so ‘yuck’ that ultimately, I decided it wasn’t really for me.
“So I came to Israel, became frum, got married, went to school in the U.S. to become a chiropractor, and in 2006 we returned to Israel. That year, they were doing ‘Annie’ in a women’s production, which I signed up for, and that’s what got me performing again.
“Around that time, pre-internet and YouTube, I remember speaking to people who’d tell me that the only thing they’d let their kids watch was old shows from the 50s. It made me realize that Jewish girls really needed their own Jewish media, and Jewish role models, and so ‘Rebbetzin Tap’ was born, in 2007. My husband came up with the name, and the whole concept was about trying to teach our kids Jewish values in a creative way.
“Each show had a message, and it really just grew organically. I started getting some fantastic feedback, like there were 18-year-old Jewish girls who were citing ‘Rebbetzin Tap’ as a role model in their yearbooks, or families with five daughters who finally had something else to show their kids than ‘Uncle Moishy’. ‘It’s so affirming for girls!’ that mother told me, and I could see it was really touching a chord.
“I’m still doing Rebbetzin Tap for bat mitzvahs, holiday shows and seminary talks, but now I’m trying to travel less, which is one of the reasons I started to look for a different way to inspire more religious girls to carve out their own space creatively.
CREATING A SPACE FOR FRUM FEMALE PERFORMERS
“Jewish performers have always found it very difficult to reach their audience, because it’s so spread out and scattered. Then the internet came along, and all of a sudden, your song could be heard by someone, say, in Brazil. But because the internet is a completely open space, religious women who don’t want to perform in front of men couldn’t really partake of it. It’s been a limiting factor for frum female performers.
“So I started thinking about how we could get women together on the internet, in their own private place, and that led to the creation of a closed Facebook group called Kol Isha. The idea is that every Jewish woman could be part of it, not just professional performers. They could film themselves singing, or performing as an every-day woman, and then put it up for other women to enjoy and give them encouragement.
“The group started less than a year ago, in December 2016-, and it took off very quickly. We’ve had more than 4,000 women join! People always ask me, ‘how can you stop a man from pretending to be a woman and joining the group?’ And the answer is that we screen people and can usually tell if something is ‘off’ about the person. But there’s no 100% solution. We’re doing our hishtadlus, and that’s the most we can do.
BRINGING WOMEN TOGETHER VIA THEIR CREATIVITY
“Other people sometimes ask me, ‘What’s the big deal about this group? It’s just like some sort of karaoke group for Jewish women, what’s so special about that?’
“I explain to them that when women get together in our group, it is very life-affirming experience. When a woman comes to the group and sings her heart out, she exposes that inner dimension of herself. She puts herself out there and is accepted and loved by her peers – and that’s very empowering! It’s sending a strong message that you can still do things even if they aren’t perfect, and that’s so important because people have a deep need for creativity. There has to be some sort of outlet for them to express their creative joy.
“Also, it’s possible for women to align via their creativity that just can’t happen when a group is formed around people expressing opinions. Our group celebrates dancing, drawing, singing, quilting – everything EXCEPT writing… There’s no divisive or opinionated stuff going on in the group. If anything has even a hint of negativity, it’s immediately deleted.
“We encourage a culture of compliments in the group, a culture of love and supporting each other. As a BT, I was attracted to that power of religious Jewish women creating a positive, supportive atmosphere, and that’s what we’re trying to tap into, via the group.
THE START OF ‘KOL ISHA’ RADIO
“The next, natural, step was to create the ‘Kol Isha’ radio station. I realized that for a lot of female artists who don’t have distributors, it’s hard for them to sell their CD’s outside their hometown, and that increasingly, people just aren’t buying music the way they used to. So I had this idea to bring all Jewish women artists together, in one place. In two hours on Kol Isha Radio, you can hear 40 different Jewish female artists… It’s amazing!
“We started out a month ago with just six artists and 50 songs, and we’re already up to 35 artists and 250 songs, and it’s growing all the time. This is a place where Jewish female artists can get their album heard, by their target audience, who can go and buy it then and there.
“Kol Isha Radio is about enabling Jewish women to be heard, and helping to make a difference in the world with their creativity. We want to create good role models – mini-celebrities, if you will – for our teens, women who are expressing their creativity in meaningful ways.
WOMEN’S VOICES NEED TO BE HEARD
“The religious world is increasingly being exposed to, and influenced by, the outside world. We need to take the best of what’s happening, and use it to encourage creative Jewish women and girls to feel like they’re also making a difference – and a lot of creative Jewish girls are not necessarily feeling that today.
“The message they often get is, ‘Don’t bother picking up the guitar, because there’s nothing you can do with it except sing for your brother!’ It’s so important for Jewish women and girls to see that they can make a difference, that their creativity can help to build the Jewish world, and empower others too. That’s how we build leaders!
“The range of women on Kol Isha is awesome; we have teens with their starter songs, all the way up to the professionals, and it’s just going to keep growing, as word spreads. Women’s voices need to heard,” concludes Kerry. “And Kol Isha radio station’s mission is to help them reach people.”