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School's In for Degrassi

By Jen Jones

Led by a flock of Canadian cuties, Degrassi: The Next Generation has emerged as The N's hottest show and the hip little sister to cult classic Degrassi High. Utterly addictive with storylines juicier than good brisket, the show's realistic take on high school life spawned its slogan, "It goes there." From cheating parents to mortifying sexual moments, no topic is off-limits!

Not surprisingly, the Degrassi cast is just as charismatic in real life as they are on the show. What you might not guess is that several of the actors are Jewish. As the show dives into its sixth season, we invaded the fictional school's hallowed hallways to get the scoop on what life is really like behind the lens.

And Liberty for All

Playing straight-shooting school president Liberty Van Zandt has always come naturally to Sarah Barrable-Tishauer. Only an actress with Sarah's considerable chops could nail the challenging role, which included acting out Liberty's unexpected pregnancy. The show tackled the topic of adoption and its aftermath, and Sarah hopes it has opened a dialogue between parents and teens. "It's a touchy subject," she says. "The storyline showed that teen pregnancy can happen to anybody–even role models."

Having grown up in what she calls a "socially conscious" household, Sarah is no stranger to trying to affect change. In fact, for the past three years, Sarah has spearheaded the Toronto School Snowsuit Challenge. Under her leadership, local schools raise money to buy snowsuits for a charitable Canadian clothing bank. "It's great for people in shelters to get new clothing," says Sarah. "It's also great to show younger kids what we can do through social action."

She is also surrounded by a funky bunch on the set of Degrassi. "It's funny because, in Toronto, we have such an eclectic mix of cultures, but a majority of people on Degrassi are Jewish," says Sarah, who grew up in one of Toronto's predominantly Jewish neighborhoods. "In our shooting schedule, we take off more Jewish holidays rather than Christian holidays!"

Jimmy Eat World

Though Degrassi prides itself on "going there," no storyline has delved quite as deeply as the school shooting portrayed in Season Four. While both viewers and characters were profoundly affected, one character's life was forever changed as Jimmy Brooks went from basketball stud to wheelchair-bound paraplegic.

"I took it very seriously," says Aubrey Graham, who portrays Jimmy. "I spent a lot of time with someone in a wheelchair, and I also have a friend who had been shot. Playing Jimmy all day and being able to get up and walk away is weird; I appreciate things a lot more now."

No doubt Aubrey has a lot to be grateful for outside the set. His musical ambitions are finally coming to fruition, as he released a hip-hop sampler album earlier this year. "I grew up around classic, timeless music like George Benson and the Spinners," says Aubrey, whose dad drummed for Jerry Lee Lewis and wrote songs for Al Green. "My Jewish side of the family is very musical; my cousins are very skilled in piano and graduated from arts and music schools."

Outside the sometimes intense Degrassi set, Aubrey's mom does her best to lighten the mood, especially during the Jewish holidays. "My mom has always made Hanukkah fun," says Aubrey, adding that his mom originally wanted to name him Abraham. "When I was younger, she gave cool gifts and she'd make latkes."

Growing up Jewish has given Aubrey not only great family memories, but also a stronger sense of self. "At the end of the day, I consider myself a black man because I'm more immersed in black culture than any other," says Aubrey of his interracial heritage. "Being Jewish is kind of a cool twist. It makes me unique."

Spin Cycle

Onscreen and off, Shane Kippel lives life to the beat of his own drum. "Any spare chance I get, I'm at home playing on a drum pad or on set playing on the drum kits," says Shane, who has been rocking out for seven years–just slightly longer than his stint playing Spinner Mason on Degrassi.

Over the show's six seasons, audiences watched Spinner evolve from quirky prankster to troubled troublemaker to born-again Christian. "People love my character because he is ever-changing," says Shane. And as for growing up a Jew and playing a born-again Christian? "Many jokes have been made about that," laughs Shane. "That's the great thing about film–you experience all these things you would never normally go through."

Though acting is Shane's passion, his busy schedule sometimes prevents him from traveling with friends and loved ones. "Three of my best friends just went on a birthright trip to Israel," says Shane, who hopes to go on a similar birthright journey in the future.

Having been to Israel 15 times to visit family, Shane would no doubt be on familiar territory. "My brother moved to Israel when he was 18, and he absolutely loves it there," says Shane, who lives with the rest of his family in Toronto, Canada. "The last time I was there, I relaxed on the beach in Tel Aviv. I'd like to go back to Jerusalem and see the sites and the ruins."
Jen Jones is a freelance writer and long-time Degrassi devotee based in Los Angeles. Her website is www.creative-groove.com.