A Jewish Artists Service Corps: Creating and Sustaining Community

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November 1, 2005
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Stephen Hazan Arnoff

What would happen if the Jewish communities of the world placed dynamic, talented, highly-trained, full-time artists at their cultural center? From Stravinsky to Picasso and Dylan to Graham, contemporary artists are the pioneers of modern cultural vocabulary, social change, political hope, and spiritual growth. The Jewish people lack nothing in terms of the resources and communal structures to initiate a golden age, and   young Jewishly-attuned artists are the messengers of the mission. In North America in particular, Jews are more culturally diverse and more deeply established in influential social and vocational frameworks than ever before. Yet artists, a vital and giving cohort wedded by definition to imaginative thinking and community building, find themselves at the margins of Jewish life, if they find themselves in a Jewish mode at all. By investing in structures that facilitate artists expanding their Jewish consciousness and connection — allowing them to assert their skills and interests to meet the living goals of the Jewish community — the Jewish world will unleash a lasting source of inspiration and strength, extending itself to new areas of accomplishment.

Philip Roth, a writer whose work challenges American society while skirting the edges of the Jewish world, models a vision of the artist’s role within a community:

[T]he last 40 years…have been so powerfully determining that men and women of intelligence and literary sensibility feel that the strongest thing in their lives is what has happened to us collectively: the new freedoms, the testing of the old conventions, the prosperity…[P]eople prepare for life in a certain way and have certain expectations of the difficulties that come with those lives, then they get blindsided by the present moment; history comes in at them in ways for which there is no preparation. ‘History is a very sudden thing,’ is how I put it. I’m talking about the historical fire at the centre and how the smoke from that fire reaches into your house.*

As translators, guides, comforters, and town criers for the experiences of the world, artists are nonlinear thinkers and creative problem solvers reflecting essential modes of understanding and feeling for the societies in which they live. Artists are the natural cohort to understand and communicate the rapid changes of our time, yet the Jewish community provides no incubator, let alone defined roles, for this creative core. To fuse Jewish communities seeking vision, passion, and meaningful content with a powerful cohort of new cultural leaders, I propose the establishment of a Jewish Artists Service Corps.

Following other successful leadership models, the Jewish Artists Service Corps will engage uniquely talented individuals with a wide variety of Jewish experience and interest. Having completed MFAs or other advanced work in fine arts, film and video, writing, music, theater, dance, and performance art, artists selected for the   Corps will have demonstrated abilities to engage their craft at the highest levels as well as profound curiosity and potential for taking leadership roles in the Jewish world. The Jewish Artists Service Corps will seek outstanding individuals who have already succeeded in merging Jewish content and inspiration into their contemporary artistic vision both as creators and, in some cases, teachers and mentors. The program will specialize in recruiting participants seeking their “first big break” in the arts. Many marvelous young artists, despite their talent and best efforts, fail to find a creative home to maintain artistic output, entering a wave of doubt and debt after leaving school. The Corps will invest in young adults at a critical stage in their artistic and personal development, ensuring that these individuals and the many resources they carry will be bound to the Jewish community for years to come.

Each fall, a class of artists will begin a yearlong immersion program in Israel, preparing them to return to their home communities to occupy positions of cultural leadership. The curriculum of the Jewish Artists Service Corps will include pluralistic Jewish study and dialogue facilitated by a faculty of cutting edge educators and artists, Hebrew ulpan, master classes in artistic disciplines, extensive time and dedicated space for developing new collaborative and individual artistic work, community service projects, training in informal education, and extended seminars on career development and the realities of making art in the Jewish marketplace. As they engage Jewish content deeply, gather long-term professional skills, create and present new work, and experience the power and inspiration of living in a vibrant Jewish community, artists will be guided toward leadership positions.

The Jewish Artists Service Corps will work with Jewish camps, JCCs, intentional communities, synagogues, centers of health and healing, private and communal foundations, primary and secondary schools, and other centers of Jewish learning to develop long-term positions for returning artists to make use of their talents. Positions for artists will include artists-in-residencies, teaching, therapeutic, mentorship, and ritual roles, commissions from communal and private patrons, entertainment, public relations and marketing tasks, and participation in communal boards and leadership councils. As in other successful Jewish leadership programs, alumni of the Corps will be required to offer a minimum of two years of commitment to work in the Jewish community for every year spent in programmatic training. They will enjoy the support of the staff and faculty of the Corps throughout their careers in the form of enrichment programs and gatherings, mentorship, and peer networking.

A core model for infusing communities seeking direction with new leadership unfolded at Yavneh after the destruction of the Second Temple. Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakkai requested from the Romans that he and a handful of surviving students might establish a new Jewish culture from the scattered Jewish traditions they possessed. The Jewish communities of the 20th and 21st centuries have known their share of destruction too, yet they may also speak of an embarrassment of riches — a legacy of learning and tradition still untapped by many, an as yet unformed community of creative, inspiring, and dynamic leaders eager for the opportunity to be listened to and to lead, and thriving centers of Jewish life with the resources to support stunning new forms of Jewish knowledge, growth, and expression. A Jewish Artists Service Corps engaged in Jewish dialogue and experience through innovative practice, study, dialogue, and work will reflect Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakkai’s original plan — to empower an impassioned cadre of visionaries to ensure the Jewish future through preservation and reimagination of inherited traditions and communal structures.

What would happen if the Jewish communities of the world placed dynamic, talented, highly trained, full-time artists at their cultural center? While Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakkai’s generation of students were initially only a small pocket of resistance in troubled times, they evolved into the key guides, comforters, and promoters for the Jewish experience, laying the foundations of Jewish life for nearly two millennia through development of the Talmud and midrash , rabbinic liturgy, and many of the primary sources for Jewish language, practice, and law. None of these innovations could have been predicted, and all became essential. Today’s Jewish communities — brave enough to seek out and support the fertile minds and eager hearts of committed, skilled young artists — can enter a legacy that is in its way as meaningful, as radical, and as alive as that of the rabbis, generating Jewish communities of depth, surprise, hope, beauty, vision, and joy with creative arts and culture at their core.

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Stephen Hazan Arnoff, born in 1969, was Founding Director of Artists Networks and Programming at the Makor/Steinhardt Center of the 92nd Street Y. He currently develops new programs for Jewish art and artists as a Mandel Jerusalem Fellow. He has taught at Limmud in New York and England, the Brandeis-Bardin Institute, the New School University, the Skirball Center for Adult Jewish Learning, and the Jewish Theological Seminary. He first found his artistic voice within the work of Bob Dylan and has worked toward merging this inspiration with traditional Jewish content ever since.

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