Jewish Culture Gets A ‘Master’ Class

In the last decade, study after study has shown that Jewish culture — films, music, books — rather than traditional institutions like synagogues or day schools, has become an increasingly important part of American Jewish identity.

As if to drive home that point, a glittering array of newly built cultural institutions — from the Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco, which opened in 2005, to the National Museum of American Jewish History in Philadelphia, unveiled in 2010 — have become landmarks for all American Jews.

All this has thrilled Jenna Weissman Joselit, a leading historian of Jewish culture and a professor at George Washington University. But what worried her was that there was no clear training for the future leaders of these institutions.

Many heads of new and older Jewish cultural venues, like JCCs, tended to have rabbinical training or success in the corporate world, she said. “But not all of them were all that clued in to Jewish history and Jewish culture.”

Conversely, she added, leaders who had come from the arts world — theater directors, say, or museum curators — didn’t necessarily have the business sense.

But the new master’s program she has created in Jewish Cultural Arts at George Washington University, announced last month, hopes to rectify that.

“The distinctiveness of the G.W. program is that it combines both the arts education and the administrative training,” she said, adding that both are necessary to run a cultural institution.

Elise Bernhardt, the president and chief executive officer of the Foundation for Jewish Culture, applauded the program’s arrival as well. “There are many such programs in the secular world,” she said. “But given that there’s a focus on Jewish culture that didn’t exist in the world before, [this program] makes sense.”

Perhaps the largest study of national Jewish identity, published by prominent Jewish demographers Steven M. Cohen and Ari Y. Kelman, in 2006, found that nearly as many Jews had engaged with Jewish culture — specifically, with a book, a film or music with Jewish content — as had attended High Holy Day services in the last year; the figure is around 50 percent.

Particularly among unmarried Jews under the age of 40, where traditional institutional affiliation, like synagogues membership, tended to be low, and where opinions about Israel were most ambivalent, the study suggested Jewish culture took on added significance.

Another study by the sociologist Gary Tobin, president of the Institute for Jewish and Community Research in San Francisco, found that for Jews in the Bay Area — where the vast majority of Jews defined themselves as secular — cultural engagement was a cornerstone of their identity.

Tobin argued in the paper: “Jewish culture is not a means to an end, that is, to more synagogue attendance, more ritual observance, and so on, but rather a form of Jewish identity in itself.

Joselit said she had taken these studies to heart, even if she was more willing to embrace religion and ritual as important elements of Jewish culture. “It’s not that I’m throwing out the Talmud here,” she said. “I see an added attention and connection to Jewish culture.”

G.W.’s master’s program is the first of its kind. While many universities offer graduate degrees in arts administration, none have a focus on Jewish culture. And even though there’s an abundance of Jewish studies programs offering everything from bachelor’s degrees to Ph.D.’s, none of them has a focus on Jewish culture specifically.

“I think it’s perfect timing,” said Joy Levitt, the executive director of the JCC in Manhattan. “There’s been an explosion of Jewish creativity in the arts in recent years,” she said, but training in Jewish culture and business know-how was virtually nonexistent. “Most of us learn what we’re doing on the job.”

Levitt is a telling example. An ordained rabbi within the Reconstructionist movement, Levitt led a congregation for about 20 years. But when she switched over to the JCC in Manhattan almost 15 years ago — one of the few national JCCs with widely admired cultural programming — she had to learn an entirely new set of skills.

There was the basic task of attracting secular Jews who nonetheless had strong Jewish identities. Then there was the simple arithmetic of balancing budgets and managing a vigorous aquatics program.

“The Talmud doesn’t train you in managing the chemicals of a pool,” Levitt said.

To be fair, G.W.’s new program won’t teach students how to balance pH levels either. The two-year program — which is accepting applications through mid-March and whose first class of about 10 students will begin this fall — will offer courses in business and non-profit management, as well as marketing and relevant legal issues. In addition, core courses will be offered in contemporary Jewish life and the history of landmark Jewish exhibitions. A yearly seminar will bring in prominent Jewish artists — novelists, playwrights, choreographers and filmmakers.

Joselit’s goal is to educate students not only in practical business know-how, but also to provide a serious understanding of how artists work. “This will be a great capstone course,” she said, referring to the artist seminar.

The program also plans to partner with leading Jewish cultural institutions in Washington, D.C., home of the university and prominent Jewish institutions like the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum and a highly regarded JCC. It also intends to give students work opportunities at those Jewish venues and similar ones around the country.

“We’d be quite interested in taking interns,” said Michael Rosenzweig, the president and CEO of the recently built National Museum of American Jewish History, in Philadelphia.

Though he had not spoken directly with Joselit, he thought that the program she was creating held a lot of promise. He mentioned how he himself had little training in Jewish culture before taking his current job, having worked much of his life as a corporate lawyer and legal professor.

What made him an attractive candidate for the new American Jewish history museum job, he said, was probably the large philanthropic role he played in the Jewish community, and his experience helping to found a Jewish day school in Atlanta.

Still, he noted that the museum hired him to run the business side, and needed to get another person, Ivy L. Barsky, a former director of the Museum of Jewish Heritage—A Living Memorial to the Holocaust, in New York, to be in charge of day-to-day programming.

“If you had in one person all these qualifications and traits, you might be able to hire one person, not two,” Rosenzweig said. The program at G.W., he imagines, is trying to address that.

Carole Zawatsky, the Washington, D.C. JCC chief executive offer, sounded a similar note. Most of the applicants she gets to run her JCC’s cultural programming tend to have strong backgrounds in more traditional Jewish institutions like day schools, summer camps or synagogues. Or they might have a strong background in the performing arts — though secular ones.

And while at the higher level of management, cultural directors often come from the worlds of business, law or finance, rarely do young hires have a solid grounding in corporate management. “It may seem surprising, but JCCs are essentially businesses,” Zawatsky said. Few young people, she added, come equipped with those skills.

Zawatsky added that Joselit’s program, which the two had discussed on numerous occasions, hit on a key topic discussed at the most recent meeting of the nation’s JCCs. “One of the questions asked was, ‘What do Jewish cultural leaders need to know [to run an institution]?’”

Almost everyone agreed that the answer involves a mix of Jewish cultural knowledge and business management skills — the two key elements of the G.W. program. “It’s not only necessary,” Zawatsky said of the program, “it’s critical.”

Given how new many Jewish cultural institutions there are — from the National Museum of American Jewish History, to the newly built Magnes Collection of Jewish Art and Life, which opened in Berkeley last month — it’s perhaps surprising that such a program hasn’t existed before. Even those running them sometimes admit they are flying blind.

But thinking creatively is a key, and Joselit’s program, some said, is really trying to foster that.

“It’s a situation in flux,” said Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, a professor of performance studies at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts, referring the burgeoning number of Jewish cultural institutions opening up these days.

Kirshenblatt-Gimblett was recently hired as program director of the core exhibition at the Museum of the History of the Polish Jews, which opens in 2013, in Warsaw. After several conversations with Joselit about G.W.’s program, she was convinced it would be a critical addition to the Jewish cultural landscape.

“It’s really thinking towards the future,” she said, noting that perhaps its greatest strength was not only the Jewish knowledge base and the business skills students would pick up, but the license to be “sophisticated, creative, and imaginative in their programming.”

Becky Skoff, who runs LABA, The National Laboratory for New Jewish Culture at the 14th Street Y, said she wished the G.W. program had existed before she started working. That wasn’t so long ago: Skoff is 28, and recently received a master’s in arts management from Boston University.

She worked for the Roundabout Theatre Company in New York before switching over to LABA at the 14th Street Y a couple of years ago. But because her knowledge of Jewish culture came entirely from her own personal experiences, she’s had to take courses independently to buttress her knowledge.

Currently, she’s enrolled in a Jewish texts course at the Jewish Theological Seminary, which she thinks might help her work with LABA artists, who are asked to create works based on traditional Jewish literature.

“I’ve had to pick up some of the stuff that this program offers along the way, instead of all in one place as this program offers,” Skoff said of the new G.W. degree. Browsing the initial course offerings on the program’s website, she was impressed by the wide-range of courses, from business management to Jewish cultural history.

“There’s a lot of courses I would have taken,” she said. “Nowadays, you need to be a jack of all trades.” This program, she added, certainly addresses that.