October 17, 2018

Festival of Arts celebrates a decade of Tel Aviv/Los Angeles Partnership

In the mid-1990s, following the Oslo peace accords and with the prospect of a thriving Israeli economy, the debate raged in Jewish philanthropic circles about what might change if Israel “was going to grow up and not be a poor cousin,” said Lois Weinsaft, senior vice president at The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, who oversees Israeli and other overseas programs.

In addition to the “sense that they didn’t need us,” Weinsaft said, there was another factor at work — data revealing the high incidence of intermarriage in the Jewish community outside Israel. The increase in assimilation led many Jewish leaders to fear that Diaspora Jewry and Israel “could drift apart.”

The combination of these two trends sparked the creation of programs like the Tel Aviv/Los Angeles Partnership, which is celebrating its 10th anniversary this year with a celebration that focuses on Israeli art. A four-pronged exchange between the two cities, the partnership “brings together the brain power” in the worlds of culture, education, health and human services and economics to work on mutually beneficial programs dedicated to a “shared Jewish identity and destiny.”

Weinsaft pointed out that the partnership, founded in 1997, ushered in a “new paradigm” in Israeli-Diaspora relations, in that it operated on a people-to-people basis, rather than the past philosophy of “you do yours, we’ll do ours.” The norm had been for Jews just to write checks or invite performers from Israel to the United States, but rarely was there any true interaction between the Israelis and members of the Jewish community in Los Angeles.

The 10th anniversary kicked off earlier this year with an exhibit running through April 13 at The Jewish Federation headquarters on Wilshire Boulevard featuring the photographs of Israeli American artist Elinor Milchan, who captured images of Israeli troops and civilians during last summer’s war with Hezbollah. Other highlights of the 10th anniversary will include an art lecture series at Otis College with Smadar Sheffi, art critic for Haaretz, and Dalia Levin, director of the Herzliya Museum of Contemporary Art, as well as an artist-in-residence program with Israeli photographer Barry Frydlender at the 18th Street Arts Center (see accompanying stories).

But Weinsaft stresses that the 10th anniversary goes beyond just fine art and culture.

In terms of other arts, the partnership’s Master Class in Filmmaking will be held in Los Angeles for the first time this July. The Master Class, in which Hollywood filmmakers train students in an intensive one-week workshop, has led to documentaries like “39 Pounds of Love” and “Favela Rising,” both of which were short-listed for the best documentary Oscar in recent years.

Past participants have included Lynn Roth, who helped shepherd “39 Pounds of Love” and “Keep Not Silent” through the production process; Marc Platt, “Wicked” producer, former Universal Pictures production chief and honorary chair of the program; Uli Edel, who directed “Last Exit to Brooklyn”; and Randal Kleiser, director of “Grease.”

Building on the success of the renowned cinema Master Class, the partnership introduced an opera Master Class last year. Omar Krook, a first tenor with the L.A. Opera, called the experience of studying and performing in Israel “one of the greatest things I ever did in music.”

Krook, who is not Jewish, was somewhat bemused at the lack of male opera singers in Israel.

“Studying opera is not really popular for men in Israel,” he said. “I don’t know if it’s a machismo thing, if men are stigmatized in some way.”

The program is an exchange with the Young Artists program at the New Israeli Opera; it took place over three weeks and included Master Classes, agent auditions, Olympic fencing and Japanese movement instruction. Krook, who along with two other male opera singers was part of the “maiden voyage” of the Master Class, said that were it not for a commitment with L.A. Opera, he would be leaving this month to do the program again.

In addition to bringing back the Master Class in opera, the partnership will be launching a choreography Master Class this summer.

Due to the obvious connections to Los Angeles’ entertainment community, cultural programs are a “standout” of the partnership, Federation spokeswoman Deborah Dragon said.

Yet Weinsaft said that the education component “has emerged as a jewel in the crown.”

Donors to The Jewish Federation have expressed particular interest in education, which has led to the twinning programs, in which 18 Tel Aviv schools and 18 Los Angeles schools exchange students.

On the L.A. side, students of course learn more about Israel in their curriculum. In Tel Aviv, “the surprise is it’s created a revolution in Jewish identity issues,” Weinsaft said, noting that Tel Aviv schools are almost uniformly secular while Jewish schools in Los Angeles tend to be more religious.

The “unintended consequences” are that Israelis now get a “different view of Judaism”; for instance, they get a chance to participate in “a non-coercive, pluralistic” fashion in celebrating the Sabbath and Jewish holidays, while also being exposed to kosher households, which are not particularly prevalent in Tel Aviv.

“It’s not CNN. It’s not textbook. It’s real Israel,” said Weinsaft excitedly. “It’s unvarnished Jews together.”

Health and human services has also had some successes, particularly in linking Holocaust survivors. A few years ago, two cousins named Esther, one Israeli, one American, were reunited. Neither survivor of the Shoah knew that the other was alive.

More recently, the partnership brought a dozen experts from the United States to talk to Knesset members and staff of non-government organizations about poverty and food issues. The partnership has taken an “integrated” approach, so that policies arising from this program impact not only those living in Tel Aviv but also those in “the former Soviet Union and on Fairfax,” according to program coordinators.

The fate of the economic program is less clear after a respite of a few years. Weinsaft said that “Boston and Haifa have been much more successful in this area.”

Overall, the partnership, which began as a small program with a “big idea” 10 years ago, has ended up “revamping” the relationship between Israelis and Diaspora Jewry.

“It’s an incredible playground,” Weinsaft said.