January 22, 2019

American Jewish University launches Institute for Jewish Creativity

What do you get when you bring 23 Jewish artists to a bucolic, 3,000-acre campus in Simi Valley and keep them together for three days with no cellphone service? You get shared visions, simpatico new friendships, connections and boundless creativity.

Those are just some of the results from the recent L.A. artist retreat titled “Reciprocity,” which took place in mid-November and signaled the public launch of the Institute for Jewish Creativity (IJC) at American Jewish University (AJU). The IJC looks to integrate Jewish artists into the broader Jewish community, spark cultural programming for Jewish audiences of all ages and spur artistic contributions that benefit Jewish culture.

“We have an opportunity to utilize and to maximize the incredible talent within Jewish life, and to support them in developing authentic experiences exploring the human condition,” said Josh Feldman, IJC’s founding director and the assistant dean of the Whizin Center for Continuing Education at AJU.

Feldman made these remarks, during a lunch break at the retreat, to the 23 “Reciprocity” artists who were selected from across the city and who represented many artistic disciplines, including abstract art, acting, poetry, comedy, painting and theater production. Jews with Native American roots, LGBT Jews, Jews by Choice and of many other cultural backgrounds participated.

Housed in cottages at AJU’s Brandeis-Bardin Campus in Simi Valley, the artists shared their work, networked and brainstormed ideas for creative partnerships. They heard a presentation titled “Government Grants and Independent Artists” by Joe Smoke of the Los Angeles Department of Cultural Affairs, and participated in “The Murmuring Deep: Creation and Creating,” a movement and text study workshop with Rabbi Susan Goldberg of Wilshire Boulevard Temple.

The “Reciprocity” gathering was held in partnership with Asylum Arts, a New York-based organization that holds similar retreats all over the world. Feldman and Asylum Arts Director Rebecca Guber led the retreat.

With the retreat concluded, the IJC will continue to work with “Reciprocity” participants on continued engagement opportunities such as work sharing, networking with Los Angeles Jewish communal professionals, and leadership development. The artists will have space to conduct research on AJU campuses and, in 2016, the IJC will launch an Inquiry Fellowship and a micro-grant fund to support the “Reciprocity” participants and other Jewish artists in Los Angeles.

Designer Eileen Levinson, who created the Haggadah-personalizing website Haggadot.com, had attended a previous Asylum Arts retreat in New York and declared herself hugely enthusiastic about Asylum Arts and IJC’s goals.

“Rebecca and Josh are very good about not defining what it means to be Jewish artists,” Levinson said. “You’re Jewish if you identify with Judaism in some way, and you are an artist by your body of work that shows excellence. They’re very good about choosing high-quality artists and letting the participants develop the conversation.”

Aaron Henne, artistic director of Theatre Dybbuk, who had worked with IJC through the university’s Dream Lab think tank, also found the retreat illuminating. Henne said he was eager to see where the conversation will go next.

“Here we are at this beautiful place less than an hour from L.A. and asking, ‘How can this be a creative space that specifically lives in a way that relates to Jews and the arts?’ ” Henne said. “I think there’s this renaissance of Jewish artistic expression and I appreciate the questions being asked of how we continue to foster that sense of experimentation.”

AJU has long viewed itself as an institution that places a high priority on arts, culture and creativity, according to Rabbi Gary Oren. When Oren took the position of AJU vice president and dean of the Whizin Center for Continuing Education three years ago, he began investigating gateways into Jewish life that might be considered nontraditional. As Oren saw it, these pathways fit the mission espoused by the university’s founder, Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan. In envisioning a university of Judaism, Kaplan envisioned not merely a place where people could study the Talmud, according to Oren.

“Rabbi Kaplan saw that we saw to the intellectual elite,” Oren said. “His point was, ‘What about everyone else? What about all the rest of the Jews in the world? … How are we speaking to them in a language that they speak that really touches their hearts in significant ways?’ ”

Oren arrived at AJU thinking about expanding the reach of continuing education at a time when several artistic organizations targeting Jewish culture were disbanding. When Oren met with Feldman — who was at the time director of the Six Points Fellowship for Emerging Jewish Artists — to discuss possible partnerships, he learned that Six Points was also sunsetting because of a lack of funding.

The discussion of AJU’s future turned into a job interview for Feldman, who had previously worked at the Progressive Jewish Alliance and has extensive experience in the nonprofit sector. Since joining AJU in March 2014, Feldman has spearheaded Dream Lab — a collection of artists, educators and programmers — through AJU’s Graduate Center for Jewish Education. Before the IJC’s public launch with the “Reciprocity” retreat, the institute led a project titled “Illuminated Streets,” commissioning three public murals with Jewish themes at locations around the city.

The IJC expects to partner and consult with Jewish arts organizations throughout the city. “We see ourselves as hopefully a catalyzing force, but by no means the driving force,” Feldman said. “We hope the artists support each other, and we hope some of the ways we might be a supportive force are based on the needs of this artistic community as it forms. Our belief is that culture has to be continually renewed. It is not enough that different cultures have made contributions at different points. We have to keep doing it.”