Why Jewish Culture Still Matters

men dancingby Shayna Kreisler

I am starting to think the Jewish Community has its relationship with culture backwards.

The Foundation for Jewish Culture recently announced that it will be closing its doors in 2014. This is following a spate of other goodbyes from some of the most prominent Jewish culture organizations around, most notably the Six Points Fellowship and JDub.

As someone who has spent the last 12 years working at the intersection of Jewish life and cultural expression, I see these closures as not only sad, but naive bordering on ignorant. The story here is much bigger than funding priorities – it is about the very large number of Jews for whom culture is their way into Jewish life.

According to the most recent National Jewish Population Study, 30% of Jews identify themselves as cultural Jews, and nearly half of all Jews surveyed in the 2011 Jewish Community Study of New York attended a cultural event or went to a museum. A number of other recent studies have found that Jewish culture has begun to replace synagogues and other official institutions as the main way in which Jews engage with their Jewish identity. A prominent study from 2006 found that the number of Jews who engaged through culture nearly matched the number who attended High Holy Day services. This is particularly the case among unmarried Jews under 40, for whom engagement with Jewish culture is the main, if not the only, way they experience their Jewishness.

Outside of the Jewish Community there exist large bodies of research which point directly toward cultural development as a major key to building successful, animated and engaged communities. The Center for Arts and Cultural Policy Studies at Princeton University has found that the presence of an arts organization improves community image and status, and revitalizes and promotes economic prosperity. Audience participation in arts organizations builds community identity and pride, leading to positive community norms. Direct involvement in the arts improves an individual’s sense of belonging to community, builds interpersonal ties, and increases a sense of collective identity and efficacy. Artists attract communal energy that supports an economy that is both thriving and meaningful. According to the National Endowment for the Arts, in 2009, at the worst point of the economic downturn, cultural industries contributed $278.4 billion to the US economy.

We need to apply these proofs of the effectiveness of the arts toward our own goals for the Jewish community. As our community struggles to involve a growing disengaged population, rather than turn our backs on the arts, now more than ever we embrace its power to strengthen Jewish communal life in North America. Instead of shrugging when yet another cultural institution closes, we need to ask how we can build a sustainable infrastructure to support and invest in organizations doing this work so more people can engage more fully in Jewish Life.

In my work with LABA: A Laboratory for Jewish Culture at the 14th Street Y a part of the Educational Alliance, I have witnessed the power of art to build community. By providing the infrastructure for the Y to animate Jewish communal life through innovation and creativity, the Educational Alliance has proven that funding the arts need not be mutually exclusive of other priorities. Rather, it is a foundation from which to build. We need to invest in organizations, people, and ideas that develop and strengthen the cultural fabric and meaning of our community through art. When culture makers are supported by the infrastructure of their community, that community opens themselves to experience beauty and wrestle with difficult issues. This creates a stronger and more engaged populace.

It takes infrastructure to support innovation – innovation not as a one-time experiment, but as part of everyday communal expectations and experience. The Foundation for Jewish Culture understands this. As an organization founded on the heels of the destruction of Jewish Culture in Eastern Europe, FJC is still taking steps to ensure that culture does not disappear from our community completely by finding homes for their artists and programs, even in the wake of their recent announcement. While their specific business model may no longer make sense, we must find the models that can meaningfully support the exploration and development of our community through culture.

These closings cannot be the end of the conversation. I hope that, even as these prominent organizations shutter, others will take it upon themselves to make culture a priority, too.

Funders and everyone interested in the crossroads of culture and community in Jewish Life should see this as a moment to work on a common agenda of how we can develop infrastructure and policies to support and deepen this work.

Investment in culture can not only be central to our understanding of who we are as people, families and communities; it can also strengthen our institutions, too.

Shayna Kreisler is the Senior Program Director of the 14th Street Y of the Educational Alliance. You can follow her on Twitter @ShaynaK103. To find out more about LABA, visit 14streety.org/LABA.

photo courtesy Chabad.org