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Grants for Emerging Jewish Artists Reflect Culture’s Growing Influence

Choreographer Dan Safer hopes to transform what he sees as a boring Passover seder into a spectacular event.

“It’s an epic story of mythological proportion,” says Safer, envisioning a stage made of a huge table around which an audience sits as they watch a chaotic performance bound by the order of the seder.

The UJA-Federation of New York is giving Safer up to $45,000 over the next two years to see if he can create a dance/theater performance he tentatively calls “Haggadah” that both hope will captivate the Jewish imagination.

Safer, 33, is one of 12 emerging Jewish artists awarded last week with a Six Points Fellowship, a collaboration of the federation, the National Foundation for Jewish Culture, Avoda Arts and JDub Records.

The federation’s Commission on Jewish Identity & Renewal allocated $1 million over the next two years to find and cultivate New York-based artists in their 20s and 30s, and to help them cultivate projects with Jewish content.

The grant, the largest ever given by the federation for artistic endeavors, is a nod to the growing sentiment within the Jewish community that underaffiliated Jews often respond better to cultural Jewish projects than to outreach attempts by traditional organizations and synagogues.

“There are traditional entry points into the Jewish community that should remain wide and opened, such as Israel activism and religious experiences through the major religious movements, as well as political activism,” Scott Shay, the chairman of the federation’s renewal commission, told JTA. “But for some young adults, a major entry point is through cultural activities.”

The federation decided to fund the fellowship after commissioning a two-year study into how to engage young adults in the Jewish community, said Shay, who recently published a book, “Getting our Groove Book: How to Energize American Jewry.”

“Young adults felt strongly that the arts and culture needed to be expanded to become another portal for engagement,” he said.

Each artist will receive a $12,500 annual stipend for two years, as well as up to $10,000 per year to complete and market their projects.

Also, the fellowship will provide each artist a personal mentor; will convene monthly salons where the artists come together to discuss and critique their projects; and three retreats to help them build professional skills such as money management and grant writing.

Several other cities are looking at creating similar fellowships.

The Six Points name was chosen because it is open to interpretation, according to the fellowship’s program director, Rebecca Guber. It could refer to the Star of David, which suggests multiculturalism because it is actually a symbol used before the Jews by a number of different peoples, she said. Or it could refer to the six days of Creation as told in the Bible.

“We were also thinking about the point as something on the edge, a little sharp, as trying to define where something ends and new places we can go that aren’t necessarily the mainstream,” she said.

The idea was to find artists that could play off each other from various angles as they work with their mentors to form the skills needed to become successful artistically and financially.

“Our one goal is to help the artists develop in their careers and to gain skills that allow them to be productive five years and 10 years down the road,” Guber said.

The 12 artists — four musicians, four performing artists and four visual artists — were selected from 325 applicants. Though they all now live in New York, they come from a variety of Jewish, social and geographic backgrounds.

Saar Harari, 33, who was born on a farm in Israel, will use Six Points to help his dance company create “BomBom,” a production that explores the extremes in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Romania native Andrea Dezso, 38, who converted to Judaism in 2003 after being adopted as a young child and raised by a Jewish family, will create a series of animated shorts based on mystical Jewish folk tales, a project she calls “The Demon Bridegroom & Other Stories.”

Six Points did not require that applicants self-identify as Jewish, only that their projects have Jewish content in some way. Two of the 36 finalists were non-Jews.

But for some, such as Clare Burson, the fellowship will enable them to explore their Judaism through their art.

Burson, 31, a singer-songwriter who grew up in Tennessee and cut her chops on country singers like Johnny Cash and Lucinda Williams, said she sometimes felt “like a fish out of water” in her primarily non-Jewish world as a kid.

That alienation continued when she worked in the music industry in Nashville after graduating from Brown University. A music publisher once gave her a CD compilation of the top 10 country songs at the time, and “half referenced Jesus directly, and two out of three were indirect in their reference to Christianity and a kind of patriotism with which I can’t identify,” she said.

With her fellowship, she hopes to produce an album of 10 songs that explores universal struggles that she has experienced through her own Jewish lens. For example, she wrote a song several years ago after visiting the house in which her great-grandparents lived in Leipzig, Germany, before the Holocaust.

“I realized I was writing about this experience and my great-grandparents I never knew,” Burson said. “For years I had wanted to write about them but it always seemed forced. This was a Kaddish of sorts.

“The album I’m planning to record will follow that structure — the experience of a Jewish woman from the American South.”

(The winning artists can be found at http://sixpointsfellowship.org/?target=FELLOWS.)

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