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Teens Attend Inaugural JCC Arts Fest

After nearly 25 years of running the JCC Maccabi Games, an Olympic-style series of athletic competitions that attracts 6,000 Jewish teens from all over the world each year, the powers that be at JCC Association realized that a significant group of young people was being neglected. And so the JCC Maccabi ArtsFest was born.

ArtsFest, a weeklong program in fine arts for Jewish teens ages 13 to 16, will be held from August 20 to August 25 in Baltimore. Hosted by the JCC of Greater Baltimore, the festival will feature master classes in such disciplines as musical theater; digital video; vocal and instrumental music; reporting; visual arts, and stage management, lighting and production.

“We all know that not every kid is athletic,” said Arlene Sorkin, director of ArtsFest. “If you look at the arts world versus the sports world, how many professionals are Jewish? Not a whole lot in the sports world. However, these ArtsFest kids will be major players in the arts world someday.” The inaugural program is expected to draw about 200 teens, from as far as Odessa, Russia, who will make use of the JCC’s spacious facilities, including its art gallery, performance space and black box theater — all of which will be used on the festival’s penultimate day, when the classes put on final performances and display their work. The JCC of Greater Baltimore already has secured housing for all the participants by setting them up with host families in the area. Fees range between $600 and $1,500, depending on kids’ travel expenses.

The theme of the week is creation. The instructors, dubbed artists-in-residence, will guide the teens through workshops that will instill in them invaluable skills necessary to excel in their respective fields.

“I think I would have flipped for this as a kid,” said Josh Nelson, a multi-instrumentalist and songwriter who will be teaching instrumental pop and rock music. “I was really into Jewish studies and really into music. I hope these kids will gain a stronger musical understanding and learn that there can be a bridge between Judaism and music.”

Other artists-in-residence include Phil Jacobs, editor of the Baltimore Jewish Times, who will teach reporting; artist Jay Wolf Schlossberg-Cohen, known for his portrait of former president Bill Clinton, who will teach visual arts; musician Mattan Klein, who will teach instrumental jazz, and New York University drama professor and Broadway legend Elizabeth Swados, who will teach musical theater.

“These are people of the highest caliber that, honestly, we really never thought we could get,” Sorkin said. “But they felt so strongly that this would be a fabulous program that they wanted to be a part of the very first one.”

Once the artists-in-residence were secured, JCC Association consulted with them to decide on the required qualifications and audition processes for the applicants. It quickly became apparent that in order for a weeklong program to be at all effective, the teens couldn’t be complete beginners — especially not the instrumentalists — but they needn’t be experts, either. Visual artists were required to submit portfolios, reporters had to offer writing samples, instrumentalists were asked to audition and digital video artists brought in recordings. For vocal music and musical theater, though, the instructors decided to be a little less stringent.

“We don’t necessarily want the best singers, actors or dancers,” Sorkin said. “We just want kids with enthusiasm and a willingness to do whatever it takes.”

And across the board, that’s what they got.

“I love art, and I love being Jewish,” said Sarah Washko, 14, of Wayzata, Minn., who, along with her twin sister, Grace, will attend ArtsFest as a visual artist. “This will give me a chance to be Jewish, do art and meet new people all at the same time.”

Grace agreed, noting that her main goal is to “connect with other people who love art and who share the same background.”

Wolf Schlossberg-Cohen, the visual arts artist-in-residence, has started the twins and their classmates on their work already, advising them to read up on Genesis in order to get into a creation mindset. He’s also asked them to choose five things that inspire them from the First Book of Moses and draw them.

“I haven’t drawn anything yet,” a sheepish Washko admitted in mid-July. “But I have some ideas. I really love art.” For some of the artists-in-residence, their enthusiasm was on par with the students.

“When I heard the JCC was doing this program, I was jumping up and down,” said Stacy Beyer, who will teach vocal music and songwriting. “I was just blown away. I knew I had to be involved — if they’d just let me.”

Beyer, a Jewish country vocalist, is especially excited to connect with the teens, who are around the same age she was when she realized that music was her destiny.

“The whole world is opening up to these teens. This week — when they’ll learn who they are as artists — might very well turn out to be one of the most valuable experiences of their young lives,” she said.

Perhaps. But the week won’t be all about art. Each of the teens is expected to participate in the Days of Caring and Sharing, a program designed to promote an interest in charity work. The kids will assemble duffel bags stocked with toiletries and other personal items for children in the foster care system, who are often shuttled between homes and have no chance to prepare.

“This is a great opportunity for the kids to take time out from what they’re doing and learn about the plight of these other, less fortunate individuals,” Sorkin said.

The program, which originated with the Maccabi Games, will be implemented in next year’s ArtsFest, as well, plans for which are already under way. The 2007 incarnation will have two host communities: the Adolph and Rose Levis JCC in Boca Raton, Fla., from July 29 to August 3, and the JCC of Greater Monmouth County in Deal Park, N.J., from August 12 to August 17.

No matter what these kids take away with them from this first annual ArtsFest — be it a greater appreciation for their chosen artistic medium, a more sympathetic worldview or a desire to learn more about their religion — Sorkin is confident that they’ll be better people for it. “I’m thrilled that teens who love the arts will get the chance to have an experience with a high-level artist that is also a Jewish experience,” she said. “These kids will go far. We’ll be able to say we knew them when.”

Leah Hochbaum is a freelance writer living in New York.

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