“A Second Home”: A Wolf Theatre Academy (WTA) Story

“The WTA taught me that I have somewhere to call a second home. It taught me that I have a place to go, and people who love me, no matter what.” – Shira Merenstein 

Ilana Steinberg and Ray Merenstein have been members of the J for 19 years — and their three talented children (Ely Merenstein, 23, Hannah Merenstein, 21, and Shira Merenstein, 15) are no strangers to the stage; they practically grew up right before our eyes at our very own Wolf Theatre Academy. 

We recently had the opportunity to chat with the Steinberg family to discuss the lasting impact WTA has had on them. Their shared experience with the program is one we’ll never forget.  

It all started with Ely who was first enrolled at the age of seven, then came Hannah who delved into WTA programming between the age of four or five. Once Shira turned four, she eagerly followed in her siblings’ footsteps. While Ely and Hannah have since aged out of the WTA, Shira is still engaged and recently took center stage during this summer’s production of Matilda. 

When asked what made the WTA’s programming initially stand out to her as a parent, Ilana mentioned how the Wolf Theatre Academy allowed them to honor and follow their Jewish values and traditions — especially Shabbat. “How amazing to have a truly fantastic program that would never conflict with Shabbat,” she said.  

The professional quality of the program and the artists involved in putting together the production also caught the family’s eye straight away.  

“We have always been so impressed by the professional quality of the shows the WTA produces, because of the amazing professional artists they hire to work with the students and because of how hard the students work. But I suppose what stands out, even more, is that this doesn’t come at the expense of the students’ well-being. The directors truly care about and even love the students. And the students know it and feel it.” 

For the Steinberg-Merenstein family, the WTA offered more than just stellar performances and shows — it gave them the opportunity to join a supportive artistic community. Shira shared with us how the WTA introduced her to new people who later went on to be her best friends.  

“It’s so special to be able to act onstage with my best friends, and to see each other’s talents shine through,” she shared. She went on to describe the igniting nature the WTA has always managed to embody and promote. 

“I think that the WTA is so special because of the true warmth. The second you walk through the theater doors; everyone is ecstatic to start the day. People don’t get put down if they mess something up, they learn and grow from it,” said Shira.  

In the same vein of Shira’s experience, Ilana also commended the sportsmanship and comradery offered by fellow performers — despite the typical, competitive nature of musical theatre.  

“From what I know from my children, the students all encourage each other and root for each other. Even when they are “competing” for the same role(s), they still cheer each other on and celebrate each other’s successes, and comfort each other in their disappointments.” 

Despite auditioning for the same roles, the WTA community has always made sure to put friendship first — that’s something we can all get behind. 

As for Ilana, the community aspect of the WTA has had an even more personal and healing effect. “When I was going through chemo for breast cancer, watching my children and their friends perform in shows lifted my spirits when I was feeling lousy.”  

It’s important to note she mentioned her children’s friends — that’s how close the WTA family truly is. The parents of the WTA have formed their own unique, supportive bond and greatly look forward to seeing their children’s friends succeed. 

“Parents form their own community as well, from waiting to pick up younger children in the afternoons, to ushering shows together, to hanging out at IHOP or various ice cream shops after opening and closing shows. We cheer on each other’s children. Honestly, I have loved watching all of my children’s friends on that stage almost as much as I have loved watching my own children. It’s one reason why I can enjoy seeing the same show 4-6 times over four days!”  

It’s true — Ilana’s bright, smiling face is something we always look for at any Wolf Theatre Academy production!  

 The community is just one important element of the Steinberg-Merenstein family’s love for the program. As we spoke, it was remarkable to hear how the Wolf Theatre Academy helped them grow and come together as a family. After all, it is the only extracurricular activity all three Merenstein children have in common.  

 After having her children enrolled in WTA programming for 15 years, Ilana shared: 

“My children’s experience at the WTA has helped them build confidence, has honed their dancing/singing/acting skills, has helped them grow into leaders, and has provided the foundation for amazing and lasting friendships. The WTA is truly our theatre home.” 

Shira responded with her own self-assessment on how the WTA aided in her growth as a performer and an individual. “The WTA has truly made me a different person. It has given me a place where I can truly express who I am, without any judgment. I can do the thing I love most, performing on stage, with my best friends. I can be my goofy self, and my friends love that. I’ve learned how to grow from mistakes. I’ve learned that it’s okay if I don’t do something perfectly the first time, or ever. I have my own individual acting style, and I’ve learned to embrace that. The WTA taught me that I have somewhere to call a second home. It taught me that I have a place to go, and people who love me, no matter what.” 

 If you’re interested in learning more about the Wolf Theatre Academy and all of our upcoming programs, click here!