By Dave Cohn

[Editorial note: Masters students at the Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion Zelikow School of Jewish Nonprofit Management write theses or capstone projects involving original research about topics of interest to Jewish organizations. eJewish Philanthropy is highlighting some of their findings in the form of short articles with links to their theses on the Berman Jewish Policy Archive.]

“When you go to the 92nd St. Y, you are aware it is a Jewish institution. There’s no way you don’t know. I mean, the minute you walk into that lobby and it smells like a pickle, and a latke, and a sock, you know you’re at a JCC.”

I was speaking by phone with Randy Lutterman, VP for Arts and Culture at JCC Association  of North America, reflecting on some early findings from what would become my study of arts and culture programming in JCCs across North America. I had sampled a variety of local flavors by this point, from an Israel film festival to a kosher hot chicken festival, from public radio podcast taping to small group ceramics class, from professional Jewish theater production to summer youth drama camp. I was having some trouble finding a rationale that could explain the presence of each of these formats under the JCC umbrella. With most professionals sharing the understanding that “Jewish art” comes from a Jewish artist or addresses content sourced from Jewish text or tradition (or both), it did not compute for me when I observed programming balances that did not appear to emphasize such offerings. What are arts and culture really doing in JCCs? Why do they belong there, particularly when observably Jewish content does not appear on the surface?

My research took me on a journey toward broadening not only my appreciation for the role arts and culture can play in the life of a JCC, but my definition of what “Jewish art” might include. To be sure, JCC arts settings can serve as educational vehicles for rich Jewish content, wrestle with complex Jewish topics and debates, and provide a venue to aspiring and inspiring Jewish artists. I began my study with this traditional image firmly ingrained in my mind. However, even when a program appears to fall beyond this fence, an abiding core commitment remains, one that affirms the indispensable value of arts and culture in Jewish life and shares this value with whomever might grow through it: Jews and non-Jews, religious and spiritual seekers, friends and neighbors. Ronit Widmann-Levy of the Oshman Family JCC in Palo Alto, California explained this concept using the frame of “or la’goyim [light unto the nations]: having everybody come here, and see us and the rich culture that we have to offer, and our capacity to share our resources and our love for the arts with other cultures.”

My exploration revealed examples of this brand of cultural exchange in many forms, perhaps most emblematically a performance of Prokofiev’s “Peter and the Wolf” given successively in Hebrew, Russian, and Mandarin at the JCC in Palo Alto. I love this example. Aside from the choice to present in Hebrew for the benefit of a sizable local Israeli expat population, nothing about this event is of an overtly Jewish nature on its face. The composer is not Jewish, nor the content of the piece. The format, however, stemmed from a deeply ingrained instinct to convene, baked into the essentially Jewish identity of the place. During brief 45-minute interludes between performances, open spaces with instruments on display encouraged patrons of different cultural backgrounds to interact with each other and with the music itself, creating opportunity for real, unfiltered human connection.

However, a program lacking explicit Jewish content need not cater to a group outside the Jewish community for it to have a home in the JCC. Pamela Brown Lavitt of the Stroum JCC in Mercer Island, Washington, argues that the charge is to create “shoulder-to-shoulder experiences where Jewish people can make meaning out of an event and have a conversation about it together.” In this sense, art becomes Jewish as soon as it is put before an interested Jewish audience. Isaac Zablocki of JCC Manhattan provides a perfect case study for this concept in describing some of his more adventurous film selections: “showing a film about the Pope dealing with homosexuality in the Catholic community is right up our alley … because the conversation that we have after is really on the topics that I think our community is interested in.”

The root purpose of arts and culture in JCCs might be understood as both window and mirror, letting others into Jewish cultural life while allowing Jews to experience it both for themselves and through others’ eyes. As a mirror, the arts force us to examine ourselves, to learn about our tradition, to confront our communal challenges and measure our progress. As a window, the arts offer an accessible invitation for others to share that journey and bond over our commonality. Carole Zawatsky, Executive Director of the Washington, DC JCC, invoking the value of b’tzelem Elohim [human beings created in God’s image], reflected that “Jews don’t have a lock hold on humanism,” and JCC arts and culture programs offer a tremendous asset by enshrining such a mindset into some of our community’s most visible presences. This was the value I had been looking for to provide a kind of unified theory of Jewish arts and culture programming. Whether you call it or la’goyim, b’tzelem Elohim, or something else, it is a fundamental part of who we are.

Dave Cohn is a master’s candidate in the Zelikow School of Jewish Nonprofit Management at HUC-JIR in Los Angeles. His experience in Jewish arts includes years as a song leader and music educator in camps and congregations, as well as leadership of the Tiferet summer arts program at URJ Olin-Sang-Ruby Union Institute.