Judaism, and creating “meaningful Jewish experiences” is not about commercializing a product to attract the next generation. It’s about being true to our culture, highlighting the best of who we are, and widening the circle to make it known.
By Laura Conrad Mandel
Until this year, never before had Hanukkah blessings and candle lighting taken place in a major Boston arts institution. Hanukkah: The Festival of Lights was the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston’s first ever museum-wide Jewish cultural celebration, brought almost 2,300 people together for the second night of Hanukkah. Museum Deputy General Katie Getchell proudly told the packed crowd, “As a Jew working at the museum for 22 years, it gives me great pride and pleasure to have been part of this.”
The free evening was presented by the Museum of Fine Arts in partnership with New Center NOW and Combined Jewish Philanthropies, and featured a preview of the forthcoming 8 Nights, 8 Windows Hanukkah 2015 city-wide public art project.
Rabbi Elaine Zecher of Temple Israel in Boston led the candle lighting said, “as we stand here and we are connected all of us together, it is amazing to be in this space because as we look at all of the beautiful items and treasures this magnificent museum holds, we celebrate just as all these various items are special in their uniqueness, this holiday celebrates the uniqueness of all of us together … ” The spirit of the evening was unlike any most had felt before, truly deserving of the shehechiyanu.
“This evening and partnership is a game changer for our community,” said Barry Shrage, President of Combined Jewish Philanthropies.
The considerable buzz centered around two expressions of amazement: where did the idea come from, and how did we make it happen?
I’ll start with the easy answer, the WHY?
I have spent almost ten years working in the Jewish community, finding ways to merge my passion for the arts and Jewish culture. Since my training at Hillel, I’ve believed that you need to “meet people where they are.” Mentally and physically, this is one of the most significant challenges and driving forces in the work we do in the Jewish community: helping every person connect in their own meaningful way. I have long embraced what the Jewish Outreach Institute preaches, that public space “stumble upon” opportunities are essential to grabbing the attention of our audience. Meeting people in spaces that they do not typically think of as “Jewish” spaces, and bringing the Jewish to them, makes for a more approachable and relatable experience. There is so much richness to Jewish culture and tradition that is often buried in programs and offerings that are more insular within the Jewish community. This type of event broke down the walls to make the celebration relatable to all.
The HOW? is the actually not-so-secret sauce we all look for. Here are the components that I believe were essential to making this true Hanukkah miracle come to life.
1. Meaningful deep partnerships. I do not mean just sending out emails to the right people. I mean engaging with and having in-depth planning sessions from the beginning to build a true team effort. We had constant communication with the MFA team, and were able to relate what came out of our brainstorm sessions with a variety of “young creatives” from the inception of the project. Picking the brains of a wide variety of organizations and potential partners throughout the city, in both Jewish and artistic institutions, was so integral to the event’s development that we spent over a year talking to our friends and partners around town about this project. We built programmatic aspects according to a wide array of input, and tailored the evening so that there truly was something for everyone who we intended to reach. Person by person, we made sure that everyone involved was on mission, had ownership of the process, and was empowered to do what they do best.
2. Innovation and the “cool” factor. Yes, people can light Hanukkah candles in many places, and can go to the museum for free on many occasions. But how often can they interact with an oculus rift virtual reality-controlled menorah-inspired installation in the museum? How often can they experience a preview of a brand new opera? How often can they be with thousands of friends and family in a top artistic institution to light Hanukkah candles…and to have what can only be described as a magical spiritual experience?
Judaism, and creating “meaningful Jewish experiences” is not about commercializing a product to attract the next generation. It’s about being true to our culture, highlighting the best of who we are, and widening the circle to make it known. It’s about connecting the young artists, rabbis, community thought leaders, and museum professionals (many of whom are Jewish and proud to have their personal and professional lives come together). If it isn’t “cool” enough to appeal, the rest just won’t matter. The proof to us was that this event attracted a diverse audience: the younger tech crowd, families, potential donors, artists, students, synagogue go-ers, and museum go-ers alike.
3. The great debate: free or not? Well in this case it was a Hanukkah gift and blessing that the museum holds free admission nights on Wednesday, and holds these celebrations on those days accordingly. This took the cost issue out of the equation and left us to focus on the artistic quality. Bottom line is this: people do not come BECAUSE the event is free (refer back to #2). They have to be intrigued by the content enough that they may otherwise pay. What was presented at the MFA were multiple interactive opportunities that gave real value to a wide array of audience members, and many bought museum memberships throughout the evening in addition to connecting with the Jewish community, because they recognized the value. We shared the light of Hanukkah with almost 2,300 people, by comparison to the 900 who had attended the previous free evening.
The free component did make partnership outreach and marketing that much more simple, and took away a barrier to entry that otherwise might have stopped some from promoting or attending. Please note, this also connects directly back to the importance of #1. In terms of registration, it was far simpler that we did not have to sell tickets. Instead, we held a pre-registration in which people were entered to win a Nutri-Ninja blender. Many were incentivized to let us know they were coming because of a prize many were interested in winning, and that gave us some leverage in having a sense of who was there that evening.
This event was a labor of love, a testament to the power of relationships, and to the value of art as a purveyor of the rich Jewish culture so many of us hope to further and share. Through partnerships we were able to make so much more out of “less,” and to build a solid base for 8 Nights, 8 Windows, a city-wide public art endeavor for Hanukkah 2015 that will continue to build on this tremendous success.
Laura Conrad Mandel is Director of New Center NOW.