In Europe, A Trend Outside Jewish Walls

Sukkot Town exhibition in Grzybowski Square, Warsaw; photo courtesy JDC

by Diego Ornique

A rollicking Jewish street festival – with Jewish cultural and educational fare, Jewish books and ritual objects for sale, and music – bringing out unprecedented Jewish crowds in Budapest. In Krakow, Jewish buildings, synagogues and the JCC opened one night to offer text study with local Jewish intellectuals, arts activities and performances to the city’s Jews. A caravan of Jewish performers and artists traveling from city to city in the Balkans to celebrate Chanukah with café lectures, musical acts and Jewish study. This is a new face of Jewish Europe and it is taking place, curiously enough, outside the walls of local Jewish institutions.

But we shouldn’t be surprised. A recent Workmen’s Circle/Arbeter Ring/IPSOS study found that 1 million American Jews are now seeking Jewish expression outside of synagogues.

So how did this movement – embracing a new creativity and public pride in Jewish identity – unfold, and what does it mean for European Jewish life today?

Situated beyond the confines of Jewish buildings, in public or alternative venues such as parks, museums and coffeehouses, the JCC without Walls phenomenon is based on two assumptions:

First, Jews who feel disconnected from Jewish institutions can be attracted to alternative events, conducted outside organizational frameworks, that speak to their broader cultural interests.

Second, attractive and innovative venues, both private and public, in combination with the introduction of new technologies, can help revitalize Jewish programs.

Pioneered by JDC in Buenos Aires – where the local Rosh Hashanah street festival, Rosh Hashana Urbano, today brings out tens of thousands of participants – the JCC Without Walls concept in Europe has played out most effectively in Hungary where an estimated 15 percent of the country’s 120,000 Jews are affiliated with a Jewish organization or entity.

Decades of Communist-era repression and the legacy of the Shoah account for much of that disengagement, while concern about the increasing anti-Semitism in Hungary today creates an even more complex reality. With nationalism on the rise in the country, and increasing intolerance toward certain minorities, becoming closer to the Jewish community or any other Jewish institution is unlikely to suggest a sense of safety to a Jew who has chosen to remain anonymous.

In this environment, outreach to nonaffiliated Jews remains a great opportunity, as well as a challenge. That was the main reason behind our decision to pilot a series of community building programs, called Judafest, in 2008.

Judafest 2012; photo courtesy JDC

The first Jewish street festival took place in May, 2008 in a public space, albeit a street that used to be inside the city’s Jewish ghetto. It was clearly labeled as a Jewish event, including the name, advertising and content. It was open to everyone and people could stay as long as they wanted and remain anonymous, if they preferred.

The event featured a variety of mainstream Jewish attractions and activities, such as local and Israeli bands, a Klezmer band made up of teenagers from one of the Jewish schools, Jewish-themed arts and crafts for kids and Jewish foods. More than 3,000 people took part, exceeding expectations.

Subsequent events replicated the original model and explored new formats. In partnership with Marom, a local grass-roots organization, we sponsored a “Quarter 6 Quarter 7” Chanukah festival. With offerings at more than 15 venues in Budapest’s historic Jewish quarter, it brought holiday-related Jewish programming to local neighborhoods. Mixing non-profit initiatives with for-profit locations, the festival offered an assortment of music and theater, philosophical discussions, performances, art exhibitions, Chanukah Cafés and even an all-day treasure hunt – all aimed at reaching out to people in innovative ways.

While these events produced a feeling of accomplishment (and one that was well deserved), it became clear that further thought was needed. We found that measuring impact only in terms of the number of participants was not enough since our main goal was to attract to non-affiliated Jews. Our intent was to take this pilot experience as an opportunity to learn from non-affiliated Jews on issues related to their individual identity, what they like, and how they connect Jewishly.

In this light it is clear that Judafest differs from for-profit festivals organized by business people (both Jewish and non-Jewish) and usually designed to appeal more to tourists. The real objective was a community-based festival with a clear focus on community building.

So we asked participants about their Jewish identity and their level of involvement with the community. A sample group at each festival was asked to respond on the spot, while the event was still in progress. A more detailed questionnaire was developed for those who indicated they had no connection with the Jewish community, to learn about their patterns of behavior and belonging.

Sixty seven percent of respondents who considered themselves unaffiliated discovered that the project had in fact increased their desire to participate in community-based activities. For example, a small street festival organized by Balint JCC and sponsored by JDC led 63 participants to become first-time members of the community center.

And while that is encouraging, it’s critical to understand that outreach is social change and, in this case, the objective is to influence patterns of belonging and to foster a different attitude toward Jewish organizations and Jewish participation. And that aim cannot be achieved by a single project or by the efforts of a single organization. Therefore, diverse groups and organizations need a common strategy and articulated actions to address challenges and opportunities collectively.

To that end, one of the unexpected outcomes of the JCC without Walls project was the discovery that at each event, one could observe people from different religious streams and walks of life who normally do not share the same community spaces happily interacting. The festivals were perceived as a neutral space for participants who were already affiliated. This also held true for community leaders with opposing views on community issues, whose organizations brought programs to the festivals as partners. Inter-group tensions can be eased or suspended, at least for the duration of a project.

What we also saw was that this interaction was especially appealing to unaffiliated intermarried couples seeking to immerse a non-Jewish spouse into Jewish culture and traditions in a non-threatening and open environment – critically valuable given the prevalence of inter-marriage in these communities.

There are important lessons here for all of our work reaching out to the broadest number of potential participants in Jewish life. Rather then instinctively creating programs for each separate segment of the community, one of the most effective strategies is simply to create a place where everyone can find ways of interacting on their own terms.

A second outcome was the need to include and partner with more grass-roots organizations. Hungary is fertile territory, with more than a dozen grass-roots organizations and synagogues offering creative Jewish programs. Inclusion of more partners fosters a process of mutual dialogue and offers non-affiliated participants the chance to see just how broad and colorful Jewish organizational life in Budapest really is. Eventually, these participants might join one of those organizations.

Pursuing such goals is harder than merely running a festival. It requires a change from top down leadership to a more adaptive leadership model. It also demands a deeper level of communication and coordination between us and our partners.

Today, JCC without Walls programs are complementing traditional and meaningful outlets like JCC activities or synagogue engagement to enrich Jewish life in Europe. This is a telling trend and an important reminder that we need to continue to meet Jews wherever they are and invite them to experience the full scope of our community.

Diego Ornique is the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee’s (JDC) Country Director for Hungary and Area Director for Central Europe/the Balkans.