cultural touchpoints

Why Jewish culture matters during COVID-19

During the Yom Kippur service at Holy Blossom Temple, a Reform synagogue in Toronto, Rabbi Yael Splansky said: “Science will get us over this pandemic, but the arts will see us through it.” This line has stuck in my mind since September and has rung true as we are seeing signs of spring and approach our second Passover in isolation.

They say hindsight is 20-20. This week marked one year of social distancing, mandatory closures, and lockdown. I have been reflecting on how much has shifted in a relatively short amount of time — but also on how much has stayed the same. When the COVID-19 pandemic hit Toronto in March 2020, I struggled to gain a sense of clarity. How do we make art in a pandemic? How can we provide cultural touchpoints at a time of physical distancing? How could we be creative when it felt like the world was falling apart?

When the first lockdown began I was still relatively new to working for UJA Federation of Greater Toronto, having begun the role of director of arts, culture, and heritage a few months earlier. We dove headfirst into scenario planning, with multiple conversations about budgets and how to reprioritize to meet the growing needs of community members. We realized that my team, together with the Arts, Culture, and Heritage Committee’s lay leadership, needed to ensure that Jewish educational and cultural experiences could continue — especially given their positive impact on mental health and wellness.

The cultural organizations UJA partners with offer our community world-class, award-winning experiences of high artistic merit and meaningful Jewish content. Though the pandemic has forced these organizations to move our community life online, the arts sector has been resilient and found new ways of sharing our stories.

In time for Jewish Heritage Month in May 2020 we launched a new a website for the Kultura Collective. It serves as an online hub for 14 contemporary, Toronto-based Jewish arts, culture and heritage organizations that are providing experiential opportunities for cultural enrichment, intellectual growth, and spiritual fulfillment. This year, these experiences mainly happened online. The Toronto Jewish Film Festival, for instance, made the leap from big screen to home screen with its first-ever virtual film festival, while UJA’s Sarah and Chaim Neuberger Holocaust Education Centre launched its online Holocaust Education Week. The Ontario Jewish Archives collected it all with their COVID-19 documentation project.

Through collaboration and large-scale efforts, there was an opportunity to create a higher profile for each organization in the Kultura Collective and engage more community members. To support and continue this approach, UJA’s Arts, Culture, and Heritage Committee invited member organizations to submit proposals for project grant funding to create collaborative initiatives in 2021. The goal of this program, launched in 2018, is to engage new audiences by connecting arts to current events and social issues, thereby expanding an appreciation of Jewish culture and history within and beyond the local Jewish community. Considering the pandemic, we also encouraged projects that explore Jewish resilience and adaptability during difficult times.

The Arts Committee awarded six project grants for events and exhibitions taking place in 2021. These projects will include 18 partner organizations from across Toronto and engage community members from a wide range of audiences. The upcoming events will investigate themes such as inherited trauma, the experiences of Jews of Color, Israel, antisemitism, and much more. Artists will use a variety of media, including film, virtual reality, photography, storytelling, theatre, music, literature, and conversations.

An investment in Jewish arts, culture, and heritage is an investment in Jewish identity. For many community members, these experiences are a gateway to a deeper, more enriching Jewish identity and connection to community. In 2018, UJA Federation worked with Forum Research and Hill Strategies to conduct a survey examining the role of culture in Toronto’s Jewish community. The results showed that 92% of respondents agreed that the arts helped them connect to their Jewish heritage and identity. Similarly, 91% agreed that arts events helped them express and define what it means to be Jewish. As one survey participant stated: “You are an important part of Jewish life in Toronto and are doing a very important mitzvah. Keep it up – we’ll keep coming.” We are all connected by arts and culture. In many ways, Jewish cultural experiences are the glue that holds our diverse community together by keeping rituals and histories alive. They preserve cultural legacies while celebrating Jewish life in innovative and impactful ways. The arts not only deliver the means by which to access our history, but also influence our understanding of that heritage. Moreover, they provide an entry point for learning about what it means to be Jewish and live a Jewish life.

COVID-19 has permanently changed how we interact with culture. We are seeing a move towards a hybrid in-person and online arts experience. Each of the project grant recipients have incorporated both elements in their projects and include plans to use outdoor and public spaces. In the last ten months, we have seen how quickly artists and arts organizations are able to adapt and respond to the situation, and rethink how they engage with audiences outside of traditional arts display models. This approach has allowed for a new way to reach the public and create increased access to the arts.

There’s no going back now — the digital experience will be here to stay long after COVID-19, and we will need to keep this in mind as we embrace this new reality. With artists leading the way, we will build a cultural renaissance together.

Sam Mogelonsky is the director of arts, culture, and heritage for UJA Federation of Greater Toronto. She is a Toronto-based visual artist, curator, designer and arts professional that specializes in promoting the visual arts, combining her art-world wisdom with her marketing acumen. She believes in the power that the arts have in bringing the Jewish community together – whether in Toronto or around the world.