When Caroline Whiddon and Ronald Braunstein founded Me2/Orchestra in 2011 in Burlington, Vermont, they had a unique vision for their new entity. “We knew early on we wanted to play for the traditional orchestral audience in recital halls,” said Whiddon in a recent interview with JewishBoston. “But we also wanted to devote some of our time to playing in institutions for people who had a mental health or addiction prognosis.”

Whiddon and Braunstein’s dedication to inclusion and mental health is further reflected in the makeup of their dynamic orchestra. The orchestra’s musicians almost evenly comprise people who carry a mental health or addiction diagnosis and those who support the orchestra’s social mission. “We don’t require that anyone tell us their diagnosis. But a lot of people think of us as a safe space and tell us what they’re struggling with,” said Whiddon.

Half of Me2’s schedule is devoted to performing in hospitals, treatment centers, teen rehabilitation centers and correctional facilities. The orchestra will once again do something novel and make its debut in a synagogue. On Friday night, Feb. 15, Temple Beth Elohim’s sanctuary in Wellesley will be transformed into a concert hall. In interludes between pieces by composers that include Verdi and Beethoven, various orchestra members will come forward and share their mental health challenges and triumphs—in short, their life stories—with the audience.

“We have people living with a range of diagnoses,” said Whiddon. “When we hear these beautiful people sharing their stories, we see the inner strength they have to overcome one of these diseases. It’s a very powerful thing, and I’m so proud of everyone in the orchestra.”

Whiddon and Braunstein know about mental health struggles firsthand. Braunstein, a Julliard-trained composer and conductor, was on a star-powered trajectory in which he won awards and conducted prestigious orchestras all over the world. However, he was privately coping with bipolar depression. When news of his diagnosis became public, it shattered his life. As Whiddon describes it, the classical music community abandoned him, and his longtime manager dropped him.

But that was not the end of the story. Braunstein moved to Vermont and met Whiddon. Whiddon, who had her own mental health struggles, had played the French horn professionally until she had to stop because of anxiety and depression. She went on to find artistic fulfillment as an arts administrator. Together, she and Braunstein created an orchestra “where Ronald and others could feel safe and not live in secrecy,” she said.


In 2014, Whiddon and Braunstein founded a second orchestra in Boston. They manage and play in both the Boston and Burlington orchestras. But when the Boston orchestra’s schedule became busy, the couple relocated from Vermont to Massachusetts, where they now have office space in the Massachusetts Department of Mental Health. “Acquiring that office space was a watershed moment for us,” Whiddon said.

Although the orchestra’s name may bring to mind the #MeToo movement, Me2 was founded before #MeToo gained traction. Whiddon noted that people will frequently mention the similar names, but “we don’t find it a detraction. If anything, it’s a conversation opener to how we decided on the name. When Ron and I were creating the orchestra, we almost always heard some version of, ‘Me too,’ from people who had been impacted by mental illness as a sufferer or a caregiver.”

Temple Beth Elohim is an ideal place for the orchestra to make its synagogue debut. The temple was among the first synagogues to join the Ruderman Synagogue Inclusion Project (RSIP), a comprehensive program that funds and guides synagogues toward full inclusion and acceptance. Suzanne Posner, a member of Temple Beth Elohim, spearheaded the mental health initiative at the synagogue. Posner told JewishBoston that four years ago she and her small committee reached out to interested congregants. Sixty people responded and formulated programming that Posner said helped people “move from silence to action. Our main goal is to destigmatize mental illness through education, advocacy, support for our community, and prayer and healing.”

Posner’s committee came up with the idea to invite the full Me2/Orchestra after a Me2 musical trio performed at the temple last spring. As Posner learned more about the orchestra, she dreamed big and saw “the wonderful possibility for an event for the Greater Boston Jewish community.” Working with Whiddon, Rabbi Rachel Saphire and Molly Silver, who manages RSIP for CJP, Posner’s dream came to fruition. “Our goals for our mental health initiative are similar to those of the Me2/Orchestra,” Posner said. “We both want to fight stigma.”

Sharon Shapiro, a trustee of the Ruderman Family Foundation, applauds Me2’s upcoming concert. “It’s an incredible opportunity to show inclusion,” she told JewishBoston. “The orchestra’s founders and members are very open about the fact that people have disabilities. While people don’t have to share their disabilities, the Me2/Orchestra provides a great example for any aspect of life. It’s incredible that people are performing and sharing in front of an audience.”

Shapiro recalled that for one of the foundation’s first awards ceremonies in memory of her father, Morton E. Ruderman, she searched for a trio of musicians with disabilities. “It was very important to us, especially because of the work we’re doing,” she said. “We think about inclusion in every aspect of what we do.” She noted that Temple Beth Elohim was “a shining example” of synagogue inclusion. “They’re leaders in setting an example of including all,” she said.

The Me2/Orchestra is the subject of a documentary called “Orchestrating Change.” The film, which will be released this summer, will show Braunstein preparing the orchestra for a performance at a Burlington mental health facility. It concludes with uniting the Burlington and Boston orchestras for a major performance in a concert venue. As always, the orchestra’s goal of “fostering acceptance and patience” will be front and center.

Find more information about the Me2/Orchestra concert at Temple Beth Elohim here.