The Art(s) of Community

By Joey Baron

Dedicated with great love and respect to the late Leonard Fein. A mensch, a mentor, and a music lover, Leibel generously reviewed and critiqued this article. As a member of the Boston Jewish Music Festival Advisory Board, he offered great insight and enthusiasm to the importance that art plays in our community and in Jewish identity. This one’s for you, Leibel.

1 pctWhy does someone choose to be part of a community? What makes one community more attractive than another? What are people looking for in a community? What makes them want to identify?

Jews aren’t the only ones spending endless hours worrying, researching and discussing these issues. City planners and civic leaders are, too. And what they are learning just might teach us a thing or two about what it takes build more vibrant Jewish communities.

The Soul of a Community, an ongoing research project by Gallup and the Knight Foundation, provides some interesting perspectives. After over 40,00 interviews with people in 26 communities, ranging in size from Grand Forks, North Dakota, to Miami, Florida, the study discovered a significant, positive link between local economic growth and people’s emotional bond to their communities. In fact, even during difficult economic times, communities whose residents have stronger attachment to the place show stronger growth.

The study looked at ten drivers (a municipal minyan?) that create connections between people and their community; basic services, civic involvement, social capital, education, perception of the local economy, leadership, safety, and emotional well-being.

What was rated most important? Drum roll, please.

In Third Place: Openness

In the study, openness was synonymous with diversity. Are there all types of people in the community? Successful communities are diverse in many ways: age, ethnicity, and faith, just to name a few. People want communities of acceptance and tolerance. After all, if a community accepts all types of people, chances are, they’ll accept me too. How open do you think the Jewish institutions in your community are?

In Second Place: Aesthetics

People want to be part of community that looks nice, a place with parks and playgrounds, with art and architecture. This too has relevance to the Jewish community. What type of physical condition are our Jewish community institutions in? What type of impression are our facilities making? Are out buildings stylish or stifling? Welcoming or off-putting?

And the winner is … SUPRISE!: Social Offerings

Across all demographics and geographies, the number one factor for people’s attachment to their community was social offerings, which included availability of arts and cultural opportunities and vibrant nightlife. The study concluded that investment in arts and cultural opportunities and social community events will help the community achieve higher levels of attachment.

As a Jewish arts activist, this research gives me hope. It’s expert testimony that arts and culture do matter and matter far more than Jewish community leaders and institutions recognize. Having access to great concerts or films is a key factor in making people feel proud of their communities. Is it too big a leap to think that a thriving Jewish arts and culture scene will foster more people feeling more pride and attachment to their Jewish communities?

Cities everywhere are looking for creative models to support the arts. Philadelphia, Seattle, Albuquerque, Richmond, Toronto and others all have some type of Percent for The Arts program to support arts and culture. Imagine if a local Federation adopted a 1% for arts and culture budgeting model for their Jewish community. Imagine how many more creative thought-provoking experiences we could create that would add to sense of identification as proud members of a Jewish community. Imagine how inspiring it would be if our talented young artists had more confidence that there would be an audience for work reflecting their own Jewish journeys. Imagine if great Jewish authors and artists made regular appearances in your community, not just at synagogues and JCCs, but at the concert halls, clubs, stages and book stores that set the standard for cultural excellence.

In just five years, the Boston Jewish Music Festival is already seeing the impact great art can have on our community. By consciously using artistic excellence as a tool for community building, BJMF is able to model the openness that people want in their communities. As a result, compared to other Jewish presenters in Boston, BJMF’s audience reflects the broadest spectrum of ages, including a significant percentage under the age of 40. We have the largest percentage of people who claim no involvement in other Jewish community group or organization and 10% of our audience attends with a non-Jewish friends and family members.

Music literally is opening the doors and welcoming people (Jews and non-Jews alike) to the Jewish community at synagogues, JCCs, concert halls, day schools and nightclubs. Imagine what a comprehensive Jewish community cultural policy involving music, dance, literature, theater, film and visual arts could accomplish?

Schools and safety are vital foundations for any community but they alone are not enough to drive the connections that make people point to their communities with pride. That takes art and culture. Not in some touchy-feely moment of personal enrichment (though there’s nothing wrong with that!) but in real, concrete contributions to the quality of life and the true sense of identity we all want for our Jewish communities.

Joey Baron is the Cofounder and Executive Director of the Boston Jewish Music Festival. Writer, teacher, and progressive advocate. Leonard Fein was a member of the BJMF Advisory Board who died on Thursday, August 14, 2014.