Celebrating Jewish Heritage at the Steinhardt Festival

With the Jewish community becoming ever more inclusive and creating a far more complex idea of Jewish identity, it is now increasingly difficult to classify anything strictly as Jewish music. Music can be imbued with elements that reflect one’s Jewish experiences or upbringing, but the way those elements are expressed can be as varied and diverse as the modern Jewish community itself.

In light of that, the Brooklyn Academy of Music sponsored the fourth annual Steinhardt Jewish Heritage Festival, which uses music to examine the multifaceted backgrounds and experiences of those in the Jewish community. Classical works from Jewish-Argentinean composer Osvaldo Golijov are heard alongside more contemporary pieces such as Mahler’s Titan Symphony (which is heavily infused with the echoes of Jewish music Mahler learned as a child). The New York-based band Asefa even goes so far as to combine pop-like hooks, traditional Jewish instruments, and jazz rhythms. Appropriately, Asefa means “assembly” or “gathering” in Hebrew. When we discuss intermarriage, we always like to focus on talking about what new additions to the community can bring, rather than remaining exclusive and insular. Clearly, Asefa is of like mind –while maintaining a distinctly Jewish identity with their Hebrew name, they readily adopt the elements of music from other backgrounds to create an even better sound. Besides music, the Jewish Heritage Festival will also host book signings and wine tastings—something for everyone.

What is perhaps most encouraging about this to JOI, however, is the fact that the entire Jewish-themed Festival takes place within the confines of a secular environment. This low-barrier space provides a comfortable setting for Jews and their non-Jewish friends and family members to participate in Jewish culture without having to present their “Jewish bona fides” at the door. It is what we define as a Destination Jewish Culture event. Such events work well at attracting less affiliated audiences, and strengthening their Jewish identity through participation. However, for it to be an “outreach” event according to our standards, a number of additional things must occur, because the goal is to encourage a “next step.” Returning for the same event next year is fine, but perhaps if attendees are attracted to this event, there is something else going on next month in the Jewish community that they should be aware of. But who’s going to tell them about it? If Festival volunteers engage participants in personal conversations, get to know their interests, collect their names for follow-up, and offer customized invitations to a relevant next event, it’s possible that the Festival will not only be a great one-time event but serve as a portal into Jewish life that keeps its diverse audience engaged in Jewish life in the weeks and months that follow.

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