By Dave Cohn, MAJNM/MPA ‘17
Arts and culture programs in Jewish Community Centers operate at a complicated socioeconomic intersection, balancing collective questions of religion, creativity, institutional structure, relationships between varied stakeholders, economic realities, popular trends, and branding considerations, among others. This thesis relies on published research, the experience of JCC arts and culture professionals representing 14 JCC sites across North America, and direct observation in seeking to illuminate this complex picture.
While Jewish values, arts and education philosophy, and principles of community building play meaningful roles, this study finds that JCC arts and culture programs function foremost as specific products of their surrounding environment. Relevant factors include the landscape of other arts and culture institutions in the area, established norms of cultural consumption, market-driven competitive factors, and prevalent Jewish communal dynamics, as well as even more expansive regional forces. The resultant programming takes on many forms, including festivals, performance series, classes, lectures, galleries, and summer camps, among others. These programs also cover a range of artistic disciplines, from traditional forms such as theater, music, and dance to more contemporary offerings, most notably film and culinary arts.
Many broad trends can be observed across the continent, including emphasis on interactivity in programming, commitment to high production quality, and embrace of the role of convener for Jews and non-Jews alike. Despite these commonalities, JCCs adopt widely divergent approaches to format, educational priorities, Jewish content, the curatorial process, and governance structure. Perspectives also vary on the role of the arts as a gateway to Jewish living more broadly or to the JCC as a larger institution. Each local iteration of JCC arts and culture holds inherent value for its community and can derive legitimacy only from the direct engagement of its constituents.