Proceed, pivot or postpone?
U.S. Jewish community navigates how to host events post-Oct. 7
Some organizations delay programs, some press on as normal and others pivot to acknowledge the war in Israel, rising antisemitism around the world
Courtesy/Scott Wall/Oshman Family JCC
To proceed, or to postpone? That’s the delicate dilemma Jewish nonprofits have been navigating, post-Oct.7, as they consider the events they had planned before the shattering attacks.
A month after the terrorists’ rampage — amid the fundraising campaigns, the organizational statements, solidarity rallies, community briefings and the calls for unity — most groups have fine-tuned some programming, either tonally or content-wise, but the prevailing desire to be together drove most to move ahead.
For Hadassah, a time of crisis in Israel was even more of a reason to explore and discuss Zionism with its two-day online symposium, “Inspire Zionism: Tech, Trailblazers and Tattoos” on Oct. 25-26. The event, which featured 22 speakers from Israel and the U.S., sought to “remind people of what Hadassah stands for,” as well as highlight the organization’s work in Israel, CEO Naomi Adler told eJP.
“Our first instinct was to say, let’s take a couple of days and see where everything is,” Adler said. “And then we realized, oh my goodness, we not only have to continue with what we’re doing, but we have to do a strategy that is ‘Absolutely do it and don’t forget the crisis as well,’” she said.
A recent fundraising gala, honoring a Hadassah leader in Chicago, also moved forward, Adler added, because the organization supports its medical organization in Israel on a regular basis as well as when Israel is in crisis.
The Z3 Conference, held as scheduled on Nov. 5, retooled its lineup and content to focus on the aftermath of the massacre, with sessions centered on antisemitism, democracy and terrorism, the college campus scene and healing.
But the Israel Film Festival, originally scheduled for Nov. 1-15 in Los Angeles, was postponed to January 2024 with little hassle. Because the films had not yet been announced, there was no press release tied to the initial festival dates, a spokesperson told eJP.
When an event’s long-scheduled date arrives in a moment of crisis, it’s critical to understand that the Jewish community is reeling, and to focus on the mission, Amy Schulman, director of development at Gateways: Access to Jewish Education, told eJP.
“How is it possible to promote a gala to a community whose inboxes are flooded daily with updates from Israel, requests for donations and supplies, and much-needed opportunities to connect with others to address these ongoing, traumatic circumstances?” Schulman asked. “By reminding ourselves how our essential Jewish organizations impact the lives of our constituents and the greater Jewish community, we can continue the important work of honoring our values and accomplishing our goals,” Schulman added.
With Gateways’ Sweet Sounds celebration (Nov. 5), which marked 20 years of its inclusion-oriented b’nei mitzvah program, the team decided to move ahead, tempering some of the more festive elements of the program — replacing the planned dance music with a performance of ‘Hatikvah,’ for example — and updating the messaging to be more reflective, Schulman said.
“By honoring our two-decades-long commitment to uniting Jewish education and tradition with accessibility and inclusivity, we are displaying proudly to the broader community that we are strong, we are determined and we are leading our lives as Jewish people must continue to do all over the world, now more than ever,” Schulman said.
Food can also be a community-builder. Pies for Prevention, an annual pre-Thanksgiving baked goods fundraiser for ovarian and breast cancer support organization Sharsheret, is donating a portion of this year’s proceeds to Haverut and Israel Lemonade Fund, Israeli organizations supporting families affected by cancer and war-related trauma. In Nashville, Tenn., the Annual Kosher Hot Chicken Festival & Jewish Arts and Music Fest went ahead as scheduled on Oct. 22. Ditto to Georgia’s Atlanta Kosher BBQ Festival, also held Oct. 22.
“When so much of the American Jewish world is focused on the situation in Israel and the subsequent rise in antisemitism, the kosher BBQ festival and other communal events feel like a glimmer of the achdut (unity) which our Israeli friends and colleagues have shared,” Rabba Melissa Scholten-Gutierrez, director of family education and engagement at the Jewish Federation of Greater Atlanta, told eJP. “It’s Jews of all stripes uniting together visibly. While rallies do that to some degree, there is still a certain political charge that divides those in the U.S. and that these sort of events get to eliminate and bring people together with food, music and friendly competition.”
Finding community in cultural connection was one of the draws of “Jewish identity in comics outside the Holocaust,” the only Jewish panel at 2023’s New York Comic Con, a huge gathering of comic book and pop culture fans. Jewish attendees turned up for the promised “upbeat look at the bright side of Jews on the [comic] page” on Oct. 12, but being there was also a comfort, said attendee Michal Schick, a writer and host of the Nice Jewish Fangirls podcast.
“There was a frisson in the air; with everyone knowing what was going on, feeling like you were together in pain, even though we weren’t there to focus on the pain,” Schick told eJP. “The panel felt heimish (homey), good and safe to be among Jews and among people, Jewish or not, who cared that these [Jewish] stories were told and needed to be told.”
Arts events provide a different kind of community connection. Before the High Holy Days, Los Angeles theater company The Braid — formerly Jewish Women’s Theatre — had a fundraiser, honoring legendary songwriter Diane Warren, scheduled for Oct. 15. So when terrorists struck the week before, there was a discussion: move forward with the event or postpone/cancel it? The organization looked to its experience with their patrons and the decision around a 2018 event that happened two days after the Tree of Life murders in Pittsburgh, The Braid’s artistic director, Ronda Spinak, told eJP.
“We knew that for our patrons being together in times like these is bolstering and comforting. Many of our patrons don’t have other Jewish communities in which to show up and be a part [of it],” Spinak said. “[In 2018] We were a community in shock and disbelief, and very fearful,” she reflected. “[But] we held that event and people were grateful to come together—it made a difference.” As for the Oct. 15 event “was woven with references to the events unfolding in Israel,” Spinak said, and they opened the event with ‘Oseh Shalom’…a song for peace. “Being together as Jews is powerful and necessary,” Spinak added.
On Oct. 7, artist Isaac Brynjegard-Bialik was in-residency at a synagogue in Culver City, Calif., over Shemini Atzeret/Simchat Torah, poised to present programs using his central project, Paper Midrash, which brings together Torah text study, midrash and popular culture. Friday evening’s program went as planned, but when the community returned to the synagogue on Saturday for a community art project, the world was upside-down. The artist, who runs the program with his wife, Rabbi Shawna Brynjegard-Bialik, worked with the temple clergy and staff to shift the program on the fly, holding a prayer service first so community members could talk, and then work on the project “to find joy as a community.”
“We’ve tweaked [programs] to be sensitive to people’s needs – to see if our art programs can be a source of strength, or at least distraction, if needed,” Brynjegard-Bialik told eJP, noting that artists “want to do something meaningful if we can, help others, and yet we also know not everyone wants what we can do.”
Art doesn’t usually rank as a priority in crisis, but plays an “inevitable” role for humans, said Brynjegard-Bialik, whose “Heroes and Legends” exhibition at the San Diego Center for Jewish Culture runs Nov. 14-Feb. 16 of next year.
“Is it too soon for art? I mean, we’re gonna make it. People were writing, people were making art, in difficult times. They’re making art in Israel now,” he said.
Brynjegard-Bialik also mentioned he’s been thinking about “On the Slaughter,” a poem by his famous relative, the Zionist poet Chayim Nachman Bialik. “He’s got this line about how his hands and his hope have failed him. And that’s been running through my head. I was fairly prolific during the pandemic,” he said. “I haven’t yet actually been able to make anything out of this. My hands have failed me in some way. Maybe it’s not my hands. Maybe I’m just not ready. And maybe it’s not a failure. Maybe it’s just too soon.”