As an eclectic roster of Jewish artists takes the stage at a new multimedia festival in early May, a bold new experiment aimed at transforming how Jewish communities connect with culture (and culture makers) will also enter the spotlight. From “absurdist rock cabaret” to giant sculptures to a “contact improvisation” workshop cheekily called “The Meating,” the LABA Festival will bring a wildly diverse mix of performances, art, lectures and readings to Manhattan’s 14th Street Y.
More important, the festival will reflect a radical rethinking of the role of art within such Jewish institutions as the century-old Y, which, like many Jewish-community stalwarts, has struggled to draw new members and engage younger Jews. Kicking off on May 2, the festival is the first major output of the Y’s year-and-a-half-old LABA Program, which has fused artists into the center’s daily workings through a new residency project.
“There’s a demand for innovation in the Jewish community at its core, in synagogues, community centers and schools,” said Stephen Hazan Arnoff, the Y’s executive director and LABA’s founding director. “That innovation can come from dynamic, innovative, culture-making minds like these.”
LABA, a pilot being funded for a three-year period by an amalgam of Jewish foundations, marks the first time a Jewish community center “has taken the initiative to invest in placing top-level artists within the core of its infrastructure,” Arnoff said. Artists, in other words, are charged with rejuvenating the community center by interacting with members, staff and each other.
“We’re aiming for nothing less than re-enchanting the frozen infrastructure of Jewish communal life,” Arnoff said. Laba, he explained, is Hebrew for “lava” — “moving from the center outwards in a rippling affect (sic), transforming lives of artists and communities on a local and national scale, and creating a new cultural typography,” according to the festival’s Web site.
Arnoff, who was managing editor of the Jewish journal Zeek and served as an executive at the Upper West Side cultural venue Makor, is also aiming to make LABA — and the Y — a center of the New Jewish Culture, a progressive “combination of art and Jewish culture that takes playful, inventive looks at Jewish questions,” he said. “New Jewish Culture means forms of expression from radical Klezmer to magazines like Zeek and Heeb to the independent minyan movement. LABA is an attempt to embed that kind of innovation into the mainstream.”
The Jewish community “has not found a way to maintain a healthy relationship with its margins, its bohemia,” Arnoff said. “A community that doesn’t make space at the margins becomes unhealthy. We’re creating a laboratory, and laboratories are usually supported by entities with great power that require something new.”
While Arnoff and other New Jewish Culture proponents have typically waged their artistic battles outside the Jewish establishment — “the infrastructure-keepers want to forget about New Jewish Culture,” he said — his year-and-a-half long tenure at the Y is actually the result of a canny hire by one of New York’s oldest Jewish organizations.
“I wanted to bring Stephen inside, instead of having him as a bee in our bonnet,” said Robin Bernstein, president and CEO of the 120-year-old Jewish community organization the Educational Alliance, which counts the Y among its 32 citywide sites. “He’s helping us reinvent ourselves Jewishly, and rethink ways to engage young Jews in the process. A lot of JCCs are health and fitness centers, preschools and camps. We could have muddled along that way, but that’s not especially innovative, and it’s one of the reasons people are choosing to go elsewhere. Instead of a vanilla JCC, we wanted something that would resonate with a unique community downtown.”
The Y has a steady base of 2,000 members, according to Bernstein, with “hundreds” of families affiliated. More than 22,000 people use the facility each year. Under Arnoff’s leadership, the Y’s numbers have trended upward, including a 50% boost in enrollment at its Gani Preschool and a 15% jump in after-school programs.
Though LABA has become “a stretch” to fund in an atrocious economic climate — its budget totals $350,000 over three years — Bernstein says that the Educational Alliance remains committed to it. “This program feels so core to the future of the 14th Street Y,” she said.
LABA’s first artists in residence, who were selected from among hundreds of applicants, will receive a $15,000 grant and create two projects each: a professional project related to the theme, and a community-based project involving a particular “user group” at the Y. All the projects will be unveiled at the festival, which is expected to draw more than 2,000 people.
Though they’re working with “user groups” from tots to seniors, LABA resident artists say they’ve been encouraged to push limits for themselves and their charges. “I’m not holding anything back, and I haven’t been asked to,” says Manju Shandler, a Brooklyn-based “visual storyteller” and theater designer who’s been working with 2-year-olds as part of her LABA residency. “Stephen seems more concerned with creating good art.”
Jesse Zaritt, a Brooklyn-based dance artist and LABA resident artist, agrees. “There’s an open spirit, a spirit of investigation,” he said. “But it’s a different way of working. I’ve never taught children, for example. I’m learning how my ideas can fit into a broader communal context, which is amazing for an artist.” Multimedia artist David Tirosh, also based in Brooklyn, is LABA’s third artist in residence. All of LABA’s work, and the festival itself, will revolve around the inaugural theme of “The Body.”
With such unconventional artists on board, “we’re tearing down the sentimental clichés of what Jewish art is about,” claimed Anat Litwin, LABA’s associate director and an old Makor cohort of Arnoff’s. “This is more about intelligent expression. How does an artist in society, who can be a prophet like Bob Dylan, bring meaning to life?”
Since recent studies by such research groups as Synagogue 3000 indicate a growing interest in spirituality among young Jews but mixed feelings around religion and prayer, LABA is also positing art and culture as a nexus for Jews of all stripes. “What we’re exploring is how artists, in the context of religion, can use inherited content as a way of bringing people together,” Arnoff said. “We’re seeing how they can create new meaning by connecting these ancient texts with music, film, dance, digital art.”
Happenings over the LABA Festival’s two weeks also will include an opera master class with Metropolitan Opera assistant conductor and coach Joan Dornemann; a talk on the portrayal of the body in contemporary art, presented by Agnes Berecz, resident art scholar at New York’s Museum of Modern Art; “Changing Every Moment: A Workshop About Teenage Girls and Their Bodies,” with playwright and educator Joyce Klein, and performances from the experimental dance workshop Movement Research, a LABA partner organization. Video screenings, readings, text studies and music performances will round out the festival.
The 14th Street Y isn’t the first Jewish center to tap artists in hopes of rejuvenating community relationships. JCC Association, an umbrella organization for 350 community centers, launched the JCC Maccabi ArtsFest in 2006; it brings high-profile artists in residence and performers, and social-action projects, to two local JCCs each year. And the fifth annual Jewlicious Festival, which calls itself “a mix of Burning Man and Sundance,” drew more than 1,000 teens to the Alpert JCC in Long Beach, Calif., last February and March.
“The JCC Maccabi ArtsFest helps us reach young people who haven’t been involved in JCCs,” said Arlene Sorkin, continental director of the program. “It engages hundreds of volunteers in the community where it takes place. And it’s a terrific professional-development opportunity for staff, who learn to put up an event of this magnitude.” More than 400 teens attended last year’s two JCC Maccabi ArtsFest events, according to Sorkin.
The LABA model of full-time artists in residence could work for JCCs, Sorkin says: “I think many JCCs could adopt the LABA program, though in some limited way where they’d get a grant here or there to fund an artist in residence. A lot of it would have to do with funding.”
In fact, Arnoff and the LABA crew are developing a manual to share with other community centers. “It’s not unusual for ideas from New York to make it out to the heartland.” Arnoff said “This is meant to be a movement for reinvigorating Jewish institutions. It would be incorrect to give LABA sole credit for growth, but the turnaround since I took leadership of the team is real and clearly documented. And LABA reflects a model I believe can transform JCCs nationally.”
Michael Kaminer has covered culture and food for NYMag.com, All You, Portfolio.com and The Jewish Week.