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(photo credit: Courtesy / Aaron Bisman)
Are bars and coffeehouses becoming America's new synagogues? Is hip-hop becoming the newest form of prayer?
For the last several decades, the issue of greatest concern for many non-Orthodox US Jews has been ensuring Jewish continuity, with rising intermarriage rates combining with a growing number of unaffiliated Jews to threaten the community's survival.
Or so it seemed.
A recent study conducted by America's National Foundation for Jewish Culture appears to indicate that the situation may not be quite so severe - young Jews, it says, are "highly engaged" in Jewish life, though not through traditional institutions. They are attending concerts but not synagogue services, going to clubs but not Jewish Community Centers. They are tired of the "parochial" attitudes of older generations and are looking for a Judaism whose primary appeal is not continuity alone.
"Art and culture are the new generation's currency," said Carol Spinner, the president of NFJC's board. For years, she said, she's been pushing mainstream Jewish institutions to back the arts as a way of getting young Jews to engage with tradition. Rather than continuing to rely on more traditional, restrictive notions of what it means to be Jewish, the American Jewish establishment is choosing to let the new guard lead, in part because it is increasingly realizing it has no choice. Perhaps unsurprisingly, New York is leading the way in the development of a thriving new Jewish arts scene.
A new fellowship for Jewish artists
Being a Jew and being an artist have perhaps never been as compatible as at this moment. The recent NFJC study shows Jews in their 20s and 30s in New York to be very engaged with their heritage, though for the most part they're not affiliated with traditional institutions like synagogues and Jewish Community Centers. Instead, they're engaging their identity through art and music, with Jewish organizations investing their resources in unprecedented ways in a culture that stands outside the mainstream.
Six Points, a recently created New York City Jewish arts fellowship that supports emerging artists, is a prime example of the new trend. Funded entirely by the UJA, Six Points' $1 million grant is the largest the UJA has awarded to individual artists in the history of the organization. These younger Jewish artists "are coming out of the woodwork and gaining a critical force, and that's why they are beginning to get institutional support from an older generation [that holds] all the resources," said Rebecca Guber, Six Points' program director. Six Points is a collaboration between Jdub Records, a popular Jewish music label, the NFJC and Avoda Arts, an organization dedicated to Jewish arts education.
Recipients of a Six Points fellowship are eligible to receive up to $45,000 over two years, with 12 individual artists in the New York area receiving money for new projects with a "Jewish focus, theme or element."
It's not an accident that the description may sound a bit broad or vague. The coordinators of Six Points hope to leave it up to the artists to define what makes their projects Jewish. "We don't feel like we are in a place to say, 'You are Jewish and you aren't,'" said Guber. Artists who apply need not self-identify as Jews, as long as the content of their projects is Jewish.
"Part of the reason is because if we say they have to be Jewish, we have to define what is Jewish, and those are the kind of boundaries we are really not interested in defining through this fellowship," Guber said.
For that reason, the 325 applicants currently under review come from a wide range of backgrounds. Some are more traditional, some are married to Jews, several are Israeli and some are not Jewish but are interested in exploring Jewish themes.
The diversity of the applicants isn't a coincidence, Guber said. The idea behind the program is that fellows will use their art in part to address what it means to be Jewish. "We want to hear artists' voices about what is Jewish culture, and what isn't," Guber said.
Trying to go mainstream
The fellowship, whose winners will be announced in early December, coincides with the release of "Cultural Events and Jewish Identities," a study confirming the importance of art and music in the lives of young Jews. The study looks at arts venues and participants at a variety of alternative Jewish performances in New York City over a six-month period.
In the study, researchers Steven M. Cohen of Hebrew Union College and Ari Kellman of the University of California, Davis, advocate greater investment in contemporary Jewish artists, particularly musicians and performance artists who perform in venues outside the organized Jewish community.
These events appeal to young Jews, the study says, in part because they attract diverse crowds, both Jewish and non-Jewish, and feature "cultural hybridity," blending Jewish culture with other idioms.
A good example of the approach is Jdub, which has succeeded not only in attracting a record number of young Jews to its events, but also in introducing Jewish music into mainstream culture.
Founded in 2002 by two New York University students, Jdub has since grown into an internationally recognized label. The most popular artist to record with Jdub is Orthodox hip-hop artist Matisyahu, who to date has sold some 1.2 million records. Other artists include Balkan Beat Box, known for blending electronic music with hard-edged folk music from the Balkans, North Africa and the Middle East, and Golem, a six-piece Eastern European folk-punk band.
Part of Jdub's success, its founders say, comes from it's focus on the music itself, and not just on its music content or creators. "When we started, our feeling was, there are lots of artists making Jewish music for religious reasons, not solely to be good music," said Jdub co-founder Aaron Bisman. "Quality was not a [priority]."
The new record label, by contrast, has searched for music that meets the standards of a wider base of music fans, with the resulting music drawing both Jewish and non-Jewish listeners to Jdub's Jewish sound.
The Six Points Fellowship seeks to do something similar. "We want to raise the bar on Jewish arts and culture, and say that just because it's a dance that has the Horah in it, that's not good enough," Guber said. "We want to say that Jewish arts and culture should be judged by the same level of excellence as mainstream arts and culture."
A Jewish art scene more integrated into the larger art world would have a greater likelihood of keeping young Jews connected to their heritage, according to Cohen and Kellman's study. For a generation raised on multiculturalism and globalization, the search for a purely "authentic" Jewishness is not of interest, the study says.
"This group at this time [has] a desire for institutions which have very permeable barriers, where people can come in and out of them as it fits their lives," Spinner said.
Arts events provide a strong opportunity to attract young Jews, she continued, because "young people are ... defining life through interactions, not through a series of institutions."
Six Points seeks to capitalize on the new trend, with the results of the NFJC study giving momentum to a fellowship that needs as much backing as it can get.
"This is a lot of money to gamble on," Schwartzman said. "We are an arts organization and don't have a quantifiable way to say something is effective."
The fellowship's backers have turned to Creative Capital Foundation, a non-profit organization that funds and advises artists, to provide a successful fellowship model. Research conducted by the foundation shows that resources are most beneficial to artists still at an early stage in their careers, and fellowship organizers say they are seeking "emerging" artists - generally those with two or three years of experience in their fields.
UJA, which is funding the fellowship, has taken a hands-off approach: the organization has no veto power and is not involved in the selection process. It has made one thing clear, however: the organization is looking for projects that will result in "events" that will draw members of the Jewish community. As a result, Six Points is emphasizing how each project can be publicly presented when completed.
"The fellowship is really about forward thinking," Guber said. "It's about finding a strategic way of conceptualizing how to create more of these types of events [to attract young Jews]. Don't just commission or throw money at artists, but actually nurture the artists so that they can continue doing this in their lives and create more of this culture."
Aside from financial support, fellows will also be provided with professional development that includes monthly salons and workshops in which they'll be taught professional skills such as grant writing. Six Points will also bring in scholars and artists working in a variety of fields to deepen fellows' Jewish and artistic knowledge base.
"We feel optimistic about our vision of a cohort which contains the voices of many different artists doing Jewish work," Guber said. "This is a huge risk if you think about it - we know that there will be projects that will be challenging to Six Points ... but we think those voices are important."
For now, the fellowship is limited to applicants from the New York City area, but if it proves successful it could quickly expand to other parts of the country, Guber said.