by Abigail Pickus
It used to be that if you lived in Atlanta, the closest place to go for a Jewish music festival was Washington, D.C.
But that all changed when native Atlantan Russell Gottschalk decided the time had come to start a Jewish music festival in his hometown.
It was a bold move.
The year was 2009, and America was in the midst of a great recession. Gottschalk was working for the Atlanta Jewish Film Festival and while he liked the work, he eventually found himself at a crossroads.
“What could I do to find my passion and purpose and take that next step?” he wondered.
Seeing success in the Jewish film festival, add to that a thriving music scene and a strong Jewish community (Atlanta’s Jewish population is over 120,000), Gottschalk felt he was on the cusp the “perfect storm” (with a happier ending).
It was just a matter of figuring out how to make it happen.
That Gottschalk was only 25 years old was either a blessing or a curse, depending on one’s perspective.
As a young man just starting out, it was certainly hard for him to raise capital.
“I was an unknown guy hawking an unknown product,” he said.
But what he lacked in funding, he made up for in passion and drive.
“I really had some high aspirations,” said Gottschalk, who is now 29.
He also was a relative newcomer to the organized Jewish world.
Having been raised in Atlanta’s public schools, not day school or Jewish camp, he found his Jewish identity recharged on a transformative Birthright trip Israel at age 21. Returning to Emory University, he went from having minimal Jewish engagement to immersing himself in Judaism and Jewish life.
“I had some major expansions in my Jewish identity,” he said, which led to his working with the Jewish film festival.
“Over the past ten years I’ve been moving in that direction [being Jewishly engaged] and it has made me a happier and more fulfilled person,” added Gottschalk, who describes himself as an observant Jew. These days as the founder and Director of the Atlanta Jewish Music Festival (AJMF), he’s also a “professional Jew.”
The festival officially started in 2010, thanks to a team of volunteers who began raising money (Gottschalk even tapped into his own savings) and registered AJMF as a nonprofit.
Beyond raising capital, they found themselves grappling with a larger, more nuanced question: What, exactly, is Jewish music?
“Is it hinei matov? Debbie Friedman? Yes and yes and it’s also so much more than that, from folk to rock, from traditional klezmer to jazz,” said Gottschalk.
With aspirations for a multi-day event, that first festival in 2010, which ran in partnership with the now defunct JDub records, ended up being a one-day event. Yet, despite “flying by the seat of my pants,” as Gottschalk recalled, they ended up packing 250 people into a popular café for a sold out show featuring a local group and three national groups, including the Moshav Band.
Now, in its fifth season, the AJMF has grown in size and scope.
Last year, they produced 30 events, including a weekend extravaganza run in partnership with local synagogues, that drew a total of 1200 people to hear everything from sacred music on Friday night, family events Shabbat afternoon and Lisa Loeb for the Main Event on Saturday night.
In March, the festival held its Spring festival, presenting five events over ten days.
With artist residencies, teen open mics, educational programs such as pairing well-known musicians with students and collaborations with local Jewish institutions, the AJMF now offers programming throughout the year.
While he is the only full-time staff, Gottschalk credits the volunteers and steering committee, who have worked by his side since its inception, to making the festival such a success. The festival has also landed some major support from various sponsors.
This, said Gottschalk, is key at a time when Jewish arts funding is waning.
“It’s a tough landscape for some of these organizations,” he said. “I think it’s important as a Jewish music presenter that we support Jewish arts. It’s a two-way street: These musicians can’t fill our stages unless there are places like AJMF to support them and give them a fan base. That’s why it’s so important that we support Jewish artists and do our part for the next generation.”
Music, after all, is one of the greatest connectors.
As Gottschalk put it, “I really believe in the power of music to strengthen and create connections between individuals.”
“A strong Atlanta Jewish music festival is at the benefit of everyone,” Gottschalk continued. “We provide the opportunity for unaffiliated or underaffiliated Jews to engage in Jewish culture and community.”
And, he added, enjoy and have fun.