Judaism is about connections. The 2015 Greater Boston Jewish Community Study shows that if Judaism is to continue to thrive as a culture and as a religion, we must create more paths to connections. While we are all connected on the surface by the Jewish common denominator, what that means to each of us and how we connect to ourselves, to each other and to our communities varies tremendously.
Just as Judaism connects us, so does art. And just as we choose to engage with Judaism in a variety of ways, we use art as a tool to engage with the world through all our senses. These connections are more than just mere fun. As the late Oliver Sacks said, there are biological connections between our brains and our muscles. Our brains need to connect with all our senses to exist and navigate the world. Without these connections, we are incomplete. These connections are sparked by experiencing the arts in various forms and through active Jewish exploration.
How does this all relate to the Jewish Arts Collaborative? JArts exists to build these new and creative connective pathways in the Greater Boston area and beyond. Our annual MFA Hanukkah celebration, for example, isn’t just about great music in the galleries, holiday crafting or holding a community candle-lighting. It’s lighting candles with 1,000 other people and dancing to klezmer music with hundreds of others that impacts how our brains process the holiday as a broader communal experience. It’s the array of multisensory activities that allow individuals to engage with the holiday in the ways each enjoys and learns best. We each experience completely different aspects of the celebration, but ultimately we all actively experience the miracle that is the essence of Hanukkah. As the study finds: “For all groups other than the Minimally Involved, participation in both of these celebrations (Hanukkah candle lighting and participation in a Passover seder) is nearly universal…participation in Jewish religious rituals are the least commonly practiced behaviors….”
After a recent screening of “Blazing Saddles” and a conversation with the great Mel Brooks, the impact of watching the film with 3,000 others was astounding. Laughing together as a community gave a whole new appreciation to the innovation and Jewish sensibility of the film. Just as going to a concert feels different from listening to music on your phone, there’s a powerful physical reaction that comes with a group experience. On a smaller scale, art-making is similarly impacted by a group dynamic. While I can make a Rosh Hashanah card in my living room, it will ultimately look different if I’m in a room with others and am inspired by the conversation.
The study also shows that many Jews are choosing book groups that focus on Jewish themes. While this may seem to be a departure from Talmud learning, ultimately the impact is similar. A group conversation about the text furthers our own understanding of the content. Add the chance to connect with an author like Jonathan Safran Foer in a larger group (as JArts recently did), and we widen the impact on our own reading and understanding.
The study also found that 18 percent of Boston-area Jews consider themselves “cultural Jews.” For that group, arts and culture are the most compelling doorways into Jewish experience. Whether it’s with 3,000 others at the MFA, 300 people delving into a book with an author or 30 people getting their hands dirty making menorahs, the act of engaging with Jewish life through art heightens each of our senses of self.
The study affirms what we already know: There is no one Jewish identity; there are many, and we live in a time when people can choose the way they celebrate their identity. As the study indicates, “…creating a Jewish communal life that engages and offers meaning” means reaching people in multiple ways, something art and culture innately do. Pointing to the need for multifaceted approaches, there is no question that art reaches us all in different ways. “New models of engagement appear to be growing within the Israeli, young adult and some other segments of the community, suggesting new patterns of connection,” reads the study. JArts is one of those new models, using art and innovative content to drive audiences to think critically and actively engage with Judaism.
So, overall, what does the community study tell us? It’s all about connections, and that’s what JArts does. Our award-winning campaign says it loud and clear: “Get off your tuchus” is a call to action and connection.
Read the 2015 Greater Boston Jewish Community Study here.
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