Their World: Making a Difference


[eJP note: With today’s post “Their World: Making a Difference,” we are beginning an expanded focus on young adults and the impact they are creating across the globe. Profiling some of these “changemakers” is the first of several new themes we will be bringing to our reader community this year.]

Rami Ozeri, 33
Founder, Jerusalem Biennale for Contemporary Jewish Art

by Abigail Pickus

Wandering through the Berlin Biennale in 2010, Rami Ozeri had an epiphany.

“I saw before me exactly what I wanted to bring to Jerusalem that would focus on contemporary Jewish art,” said the 33-year-old Ozeri.

A biennale (Italian for “biennial” or “every other year”) is a large-scale contemporary art exhibition, dating back to the back to the first Venice Biennale in 1895.

Although there are over 100 biennales that take place around the globe, there had never been one in Jerusalem.

“I felt that a biennale would be perfect for Jerusalem because it wasn’t a museum or something institutional or a one-time event like a festival. It was something we could bring to the city that has a continuous feeling to it,” he said.

Ozeri is an unusual arts ambassador.

The Jerusalem native completed an undergraduate degree in philosophy, political science and economics and a master’s in economics from Hebrew University.

“Not the standard for someone who wants to do art,” Ozeri admitted.

With an interest in political science, he worked for a few years in the office of the Israel Anti-Trust Authority.

“Those were the worst years of my life and you can quote me on that,” said Ozeri.

So at the age of 30 he decided to pursue his true love – art – and enrolled in the Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design, Israel’s most prestigious art school.

“It was a very special experience and I gained a lot,” said Ozeri in retrospect.

But he was far from your typical art student. To begin with, he had close to a decade on most of his fellow students, not to mention some serious professional work experience. But what really set him apart was his fascination with Jewish art – or what he calls, the “Jewish world of content.”

“In Israel, art is secular; it’s liberal and Western,” said Ozeri. “The art world here sees Berlin and New York as centers, rather than seeing Jerusalem as the center for Jewish art.”

“When you talk about Jewish art, people usually go in their minds to Judaica, to objects made for religious ceremonies,” he continued.

But what Ozeri had in mind was different: he wanted to talk about what is happening now artistically in the Jewish world, to showcase the creative forces that represent today, not yesterday.

“For me, I see the Jewish world of content as made up of Hebrew language, midrashim, halachot, as well as the reality and experiences of a Jewish person today. It contains many things that you can define as Jewish and it is not necessarily religious,” he said.

When he returned to Israel from Berlin he got to work trying to turn the biennale into a reality.

He started writing letters to raise funds, support and a cadre of potential organizers.

For two years he slugged away at his dream, supporting himself as a journalist for The Marker, the daily economics newspaper that is part of Haaretz.

And then in 2012 he got a break.

A well-known real estate company had purchased a complex of buildings on Emek Refaim, the bustling main street in Jerusalem’s German Colony neighborhood.

They agreed to loan the complex to Ozeri during Sukkot.

“From that minute on I started running,” said Ozeri.

He brought together a team of curators who, in turn, was each in charge of conceiving a different concept for their show and for finding the artists they wanted to showcase. (For example, one show’s theme was ben shamayim laretz – between heaven and earth.)

In the end, the event, which ran for six weeks in 2013, showcased six different exhibitions in five different venues and featured 59 artists, mostly local but also some from abroad.

Close to 5,000 people came out to view the exhibitions, including busloads of people who came from different cities in Israel, such as Haifa and Tel Aviv.

“We had more people than we could ever have imagined,” said Ozeri, adding that holding the biennale during Sukkot was a coup because that is vacation time in Israel so people could attend with their families.

One unusual outcome of the biennale was the range of partners who came together to plan it, notably ultra-Orthodox and secular artists. “These are usually people who do not sit together,” said Ozeri. “So many times people tried to put a veto on the other side. That’s how fragile the Jewish people are – how much tension and conflict there are among groups.”

But they persevered and if you ask Ozeri, he thinks this is a litmus test for real co-existence.

“If we can use art and artists as a bridge between different groups than it can work in other places, too,” he said.

As of now, Ozeri is running the biennale full-time. He and his cohorts are planning a series of occasional exhibitions throughout the year and the next Jerusalem Biennale for Contemporary Jewish Art is planned for Sukkot of 2015.