A Jewish approach to cross-cultural understanding and tolerance
The following article is offered as a partnership between eJP and the Clergy Leadership Incubator program (CLI). CLI is a two-year program to support and encourage congregational rabbis and rabbinic entrepreneurs in the areas of innovative thinking, change management and institutional transformation. CLI is directed by Rabbi Sid Schwarz and is fiscally sponsored by Adamah: People, Planet, Purpose (formerly, Hazon). Each month CLI offers a Synagogue Innovation Blog. Past columns can be found at: http://www.cliforum.org/blog/.
The In[HEIR]itance Project began as a Jewish idea. Could a process rooted in the Jewish text-analysis technology of PaRDeS translate to the devising of new pieces of theater? Could a participatory playmaking process connect neighbors to each other across silos of identity? Could it leverage inherited, sacred texts as tools for good rather than as weapons of division, condemnation and hatred? And could a temporary, hyper-local art project seed lasting collaboration in a community? With the generous support of The Covenant Foundation, we set out to answer all of those questions in a five-city, year-year experiment that took us to Minneapolis, Charleston, Austin, Seattle and Kansas City. We learned so much in those first years. We learned about the power of a participatory process to build relationships across divisions. And we learned that the PaRDeS model works as a tool for devising theater.
PaRDeS is an acronym describing an ancient technology of text analysis applied by scholars and rabbis of the talmudic period. It’s a layered unfolding of understanding (plain reading; clues for something deeper; story that fills in the gaps; and the secrets hiding within the text). This technique serves the communities we engage by giving agency to their own perspectives on their inherited cultural touchstones. To that end, we also learned that sacred Jewish texts aren’t the only texts that can serve as cultural touchstones for community engagement and reflection. We learned that Jews are eager to apply their inherited wisdoms to modern challenges in ways that are thrilling and challenging. And we learned that experiences of prejudice, radical love, artistic success and logistical challenges coexist in this work.
Attucks Theatre, Norfolk, Va.
Ultimately, we learned that we can do the work of tikkun olam (repairing the world) by expanding beyond the work of tikkun shtetl (repairing our own, intimate community). That might be a hot take, but it’s not meant to be. The truth is that we live in a connected world, a connected society. Our communities have challenges that impact the collective and must be addressed collectively. Art can help address collective issues intersectionally.
In 2015 there was a racist massacre at Mother Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina, and the city was reeling. The white Jewish community was eager to build relationships with their Black neighbors amid the civic strife. We were invited by the Charleston Jewish Federation and the City of Charleston Office of Cultural Affairs to devise a play in and with the community, to be premiered at the Piccolo Spoleto Arts Festival leading up to the first anniversary of the massacre. We expanded our project to partner with Black churches and Jewish congregations, building bridges of support and healing within a more diverse community. We saw how our model of passing 100% of box office proceeds to the community could lead to the continuation of interfaith and intersectional creative projects in the city. And we recognized that in order to continue to answer our initial questions, we needed to think more broadly about the communities and stakeholders inviting us to activate their civic conversations through our playmaking process.
We were also learning that trauma wasn’t exclusive to one identity, and couldn’t be examined in a vacuum. In 2017 we did a project in Kansas City after a series of white supremacist shootings attacking the Jewish and Muslim communities. We worked with local Muslims and Jews, connecting imams and rabbis who had never met or worked together before. It was through opening up our process to a wider array of perspectives that we were able to access a more unified human experience.
We just completed our biggest endeavor yet in the spring of 2022: a year-long project in Norfolk/Virginia Beach as part of our national series exploring Exodus narratives in America with support from the Lippman Kanfer Foundation for Living Torah. When Virginia Beach was founded as a city in 1963, Blacks and Jews were explicitly prohibited from owning property by the new city government. Since then, our cultural stories in this country have diverged, and it was impossible for us, as an organization, to address these kinds of civic histories without approaching them from a place of intersectionality. We couldn’t make art about an act of prejudice so blatantly multipronged and pretend it only affected one group of people and their descendants.
The clearest lesson we’ve learned is that it’s easy and convenient to stick with your own. Which political jersey you’re wearing often indicates what neighborhood you live in, what school you go to, what synagogue or church or mosque you attend. It can feel impossible sometimes to look beyond those identifiers and find connection and community that transcend those divisions. But art can help. Art modeled on the talmudic method of the Jewish sages; art that draws on inherited sacred wisdoms of many cultures (including Judaism); and art that activates voices of today’s contemporary, complex communities – that kind of art can move mountains.
Our unique, collaborative process sits at the intersections of sacred and artistic practices. We endeavor, through collaborative artmaking, to investigate what we as HEIR’s do with our shared and individual inheritances (myths, narratives, ideas, theologies, systems etc.) and how we can apply them to hard conversations in our communities.
We were very nervous as an organization when we realized that we needed to shift our identity away from being a primarily Jewish organization to being an organization predicated on Jewish values. We worked deeply with our staff and board and with our advisors at the Upstart Venture Accelerator, to figure out how to maintain our Jewish roots while reaching a broader constituency and serving a wider cross-section of humanity. Since those conversations, and the steps we took to activate ourselves in a more holistic engagement of civic conversations, we’ve won national recognition for our interfaith work. Not only did we receive a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts for our current project in Memphis, but PBS is also premiering a full-length documentary about our work in the spring of 2023 (preview here). Our project inquiry list has ballooned to over two dozen communities. Lastly, while we currently only have the bandwidth to facilitate 2-3 projects a year, we’re expanding our work beyond the United States in 2023, with upcoming projects in Rwanda and Canada.
To this day, Jewish texts and values, and engagement with the Jewish community, remain core to our work. That is not going to change. For us, the change is only that the In[HEIR]itance Project is not exclusively of and for Jews, but rather: of and for community.
Jon Adam Ross has spent more than 25 years making art with communities around the country as an actor, playwright and teaching artist and the last 8 years as a co-founding artist and executive director of the In[HEIR]itance Project.