Op-Ed: Jewish community needs a Jewish cultural policy

NEW YORK (JTA) — JDub Records, the innovative nonprofit Jewish music endeavor that discovered Matisyahu and numerous other artists, released 35 albums, and brought 150,000 participants to concerts and other events, announced last week that it would be closing after nine years of successful operation. The principal cause: inability to secure sufficient ongoing philanthropic support.

The impending closure of one of the most promising start-ups in the "Jewish innovative ecosystem" highlights a critical gap in the Jewish communal landscape — the absence of what may be called a “Jewish cultural policy” in North America.

We have policies — or at least policy discourse — in many domains. They range as wide as Jewish education, outreach, combating anti-Semitism, Israel advocacy, poverty, Jewish peoplehood and much more.

Just a century ago, communal leaders addressed such critical issues as the family, employment, health, English language acquisition and citizenship. As needs changed, so did the Jewish communal policy discourse. But however extensive is the current communal agenda, our planfulness has not yet extended to the realm of Jewish culture, signifying a lack of Jewish cultural policy on local, national and continental levels.

In the past decade, a cluster of loosely connected enterprises have been supported by family foundations, UJA-Federation of New York, the Foundation for Jewish Culture and others. These efforts have produced an array of impressive Jewish cultural practices, mostly grass roots, modular and low cost. They include anchors of local cultural engagement like Moishe House, as well as projects creating content and disseminating Jewish cultural innovation such as Storahtelling, Hazon and, quite prominently until now, JDub Records.

To these endeavors must be added many thousands of writers, poets, fine artists, dancers, actors, directors, filmmakers, musicians, dancers and other culture makers, as well as the venues they present their work — from bookstores, museums and galleries, clubs and film festivals to the rich virtual landscape of YouTube and beyond. These, and so much more, constitute the critical elements in North America’s “Jewish cultural ecology."

But to be a Jewish artist or cultural innovator in the Jewish community today often means serving small pockets of interest on the fringe or to be drafted occasionally into preformed communal templates — fundraisers, traditional celebrations or outreach programs — where art is instrumental rather than generative, dogmatic rather than dynamic.

Sadly, with the economy in a continual state of flux, the arts often are the first programmatic cut made by organizations. The JDub news is no isolated instance.

There is a compelling case for significant, sustained and strategic investment in creative people, infrastructure and values. The benefits of a rich culture have been amply established for society as a whole. Richard Florida’s "The Rise of the Creative Class" demonstrates the value of a thriving cultural life for economic vitality. Florida’s three T’s of "Talent, Tolerance and Technology" suggest lessons that Jewish communal leaders can apply to the Jewishly engaged creative class of thinkers, producers, organizers, artists, performers, promoters and patrons.

The edgy, innovative environments that artists construct can function as powerful forces driving the wider society. The Jewish world desperately needs a lively margin for new ideas to influence and stimulate what many — perhaps young adults in particular — broadly see as a stultified and uninspiring Jewish community.

What do artists need and want? They seek peers in a creative community of work; inspiration in the form of dialogue, study and engagement to enrich both the product and process of their work; deadlines and structure within which this work can be accomplished; space for work to be created and presented; and a public forum for the wider community to experience, consume and relate to the work.

Notwithstanding the reputations for effectiveness of North American Jewish artists and the projects and institutions with which their work is affiliated, the organized Jewish community lacks a systematic and articulated cultural policy to advocate for and sustain the creative potential embodied by this work.

A Jewish cultural policy would ask three basic sets of questions:

1. What is the nature, extent, quality, value and impact of the Jewish cultural life? In short, why is Jewish culture important?

2. What is the Jewish cultural life we would want to have?

3. How do we move from the current reality to the desired ideal with effective strategies, resources and implementation?

Jewish communities should act decisively to place a creative class of artists and culture makers in core institutions, offering space for artists to gather, study, create, explore and present their work within a Jewish communal context and calendar. At the same time, artists, thinkers and culture makers should dialogue with institutional leaders and funders in mini think tanks and incubators, tackling core issues of how to create a vibrant Jewish community.

A society without a vibrant and respected creative class lacks the imagination and inspiration to innovate and grow. The last decade has offered indications of a Jewish renaissance, as new forms of Jewish cultural work have emerged in conjunction with simultaneous advances in Jewish learning, new digital media, social justice and Jewish spiritual communities.

A Jewish cultural policy on the local, regional and continental levels that smartly and strategically fosters Jewish cultural endeavors will ensure the recent gains in Jewish cultural life, with benefits on many levels — cultural, spiritual, educational, political and much more. And a real commitment to Jewish culture can preclude disheartening and wasteful reversal such as the winding down of JDub.

Stephen Hazan Arnoff is executive director of the 14th Street Y in New York City, where he founded and directs LABA: The National Laboratory for New Jewish Culture. Steven M. Cohen is a research professor at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion and director of the Berman Jewish Policy Archive at NYU Wagner.)
 

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