Jewish Culture in a Crossover World

Words like “crossover,” “fluidity,” and “hybrid” kept coming up during a session at the annual conference of the Council of American Jewish Museums a couple of weeks ago. The panelists, drawing on both research and experience, all saw changes in attitudes and behavior among the audiences for Jewish cultural events, though not necessarily the same changes.

From the standpoint of the arts generally, this is hardly news. For decades symphony orchestras have had to cope with a shift away from subscriptions towards single tickets sales. Opera companies use sexier marketing and rely less on social cachet; museums entice young adults with music and mingling in the galleries on weekend nights. Arts institutions have generally recognized for a while now that they can’t rely on the habitual support of a traditional audience any more.

In the Jewish world this is framed less as a question of ticket sales than of the weakening ties between Jews and their communities, and in fact the session’s title was “Affiliation 2.0.” That approach confuses two rather different things: how Jews consume culture, and how they connect with Jewish institutions. A landmark study commissioned by Richard Siegel in 2004, when he headed the National Foundation for Jewish Culture, ultimately found that many young Jewish adults are “engaged but unaffiliated.” In other words, they do attend arts events, but they’re not formally involved with the Jewish community.

What’s more, Ari Y. Kelman, co-author of that study, reported that subsequent research has found the dichotomy between “inside” and “outside” is artificial. Jumpstart’s, Shawn Landres made a similar observation about blurred boundaries, external and internal. People move back and forth, often identifying strongly with being Jewish while being actively engaged in the larger world.

That observation was brought home when Peter Stein of the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival , speaking on a different panel at the Los Angeles conference, offered three remarkable statistics. Seventy percent of his audience members identify as Jewish; for half of those, the only Jewish thing they do all year is attend the Festival. Yet 90% of them say that Jewishness is very important to them. In an era of à-la-carte choices, Jewishness and Jewish affiliation are becoming two very different things.

JDub’s Jamie Waldman, speaking on the Affiliation 2.0 panel, pointed to the millions of people reached by the record label’s recordings and events. These “moments of community,” as JDub has called them, epitomize this new reality of engagement that is independent of any affiliation.

The long-standing idea of promoting affiliation makes sense as a fund-raising strategy because people are likelier to donate to a cause or organization that inspires their loyalty and commitment. At the same time, individuals now construct their Jewish identities around many things, and affiliation is much less important in that context than it used to be. Experiences with the arts and with Israel have a powerful impact too – in fact, as the San Francisco Film Festival illustrates, those experiences can be much more influential in shaping Jewishness than appeals to communal responsibilities.

It’s time to recognize that the value of Jewish culture is not that it promotes affiliation, but rather that it reinforces a broader and more enduring sense of commonality with the Jewish people. Encounters with Jewish creativity are defining events in and of themselves. To see them as a means to something else is to misunderstand how a culture shapes, and is shaped by, the people from which it emerges.

Bob Goldfarb is president of the Center for Jewish Culture and Creativity, based in Los Angeles and Jerusalem, and is a regular contributor to eJewishPhilanthropy.