On Arts Matter Day, Jewish Arts Collaborative Blended Online Activism with Community Programming


On Arts Matter Day, Congregation Or Atid in Wayland showcased the Guy Mendilow Ensemble as part of Arts Matter Shabbat, a celebration of Jewish journeys through the arts that took place during weekly Shabbat services at 15 synagogues around the state.

Mendilow, an Israeli native and world musician, leads a group that performs music in the Ladino tradition, a Judaeo-Spanish culture and language that is nearly extinct. “It was a rare opportunity for congregants to experience that music live and it’s something that Or Atid wouldn't bring in on an average day,” says Laura Conrad Mandel, executive director of the Jewish Arts Collaborative (JArts), which organized Arts Matter Shabbat.  

“I think it's gotten them thinking about what they can do on a more regular basis to bring art to Shabbat throughout the year,” says Mandel.

Showing the ways that art and creativity are—or can be—an expected, recognized, and valued part of everyday life and encouraging public investment in the arts is what Arts Matter Day is all about. This year’s online celebration of the arts drew participation from over 750 organizations, working artists, and arts supporters as they shared over 23,000 posts, pictures, videos, likes, and comments showing why arts matter to individuals, families, and communities. Altogether, the day of advocacy reached more than 1.5 million people.

But the brilliance of Mandel’s Arts Matter Shabbat was to take the online component of the day and blend it with JArts’ community programming. With each event drawing between 20 to 400 people, says Mandel, Arts Matter Shabbat reached a collective audience of up to 2,000 people. As a result the event was a perfect expression of the mission of JArts, which is to explore and present “the rich, diverse, and creative world of Jewish arts and culture—past, present, and future—to the widest possible audience, in venues across Greater Boston.”

At Boston’s Temple Israel, congregants and artists created works of art inspired by the service in real time during “Studio Shabbat.” Normally, congregants sit and listen as the rabbi or cantor speaks or prays, but Studio Shabbat gave them an instant outlet to process or reflect on the service.

“For those of us who are experiential or visual learners, it gave a really different way to engage with the service,” Mandel says. “They had painters up at the front of the room, painting throughout inspired by the service, and so for me it makes it a much more experiential, inclusive opportunity.”

Other Arts Matter Shabbat events included a performance by Aleph Beats, Brown University’s Jewish A Capella group, at Agudath Achim in Taunton. Jamaica Plain’s Congregation Nehar Shalom and Moishe Kavod House hosted the “Havdalah and Jewish Rhythm Workshop” with percussionist Yedidah Syd Smart. In Sudbury, actor Annette Miller and Boston College Professor Stuart Hecht performed the tribute “Simon Sez: Favorite Scenes from the Late Great Playwright Neil Simon,” at Congregation Beth El.

JArts inaugurated Arts Matter Shabbat last year as a way to expand the organization’s previous involvement with Arts Matter Day from the online realm to in person participation and to increase the broader Jewish community’s focus on the importance of arts and creativity. Because Arts Matter Day is always held on a Friday and therefore coincides with Shabbat, Judaism’s day of rest, it was “a no-brainer,” Mandel says, to marry arts and creativity with the religious observance.

“We loved the idea of a matchup between advocacy and a focus on the arts—something beautiful and interesting and exciting—coinciding with this day of rest,” she says.

JArts reached out to synagogues to ask how they could collaborate on promoting the arts in Jewish communities where art is not necessarily a central issue and there is limited awareness of the need to advocate for public investment in art. Last year’s events were such a success that JArts decided to expand this year and make Arts Matter Shabbat an annual endeavor.

Working with 15 enthusiastic partner synagogues this year, JArts encouraged each of them to create an experience that demonstrated to their entire community just how valuable they consider arts and creativity, while tailoring it to each of the congregations’ needs and wants. JArts helped by making introductions to appropriate artists for them.

Mandel credited MASSCreative’s reputation for stoking the enthusiasm of participating synagogues. “I think the reason this works so well is because MASSCreative has the backing and the stature for people to take it seriously,” says Mandel.

“They've given our organization and community the tools to understand the policy issues and to talk about them in a more concise and clear way,” Mandel says. “That's important because sometimes the biggest barrier to building community-wide support for the arts is a lack of effective language.”

After the success of this year’s Arts Matter Day Shabbat, Mandel also looks forward to seeing the event grow. She’ll be surprised if JArts doesn’t top 20 partners next year.

“I have synagogues saying, ‘I wish we had been a part of this this year,’” she said. “It's an opportunity for them to support the arts in their own community, but also to know and feel like they're part of the work of statewide arts advocates and MASSCreative and JArts, which is an unusual opportunity because it really is a partnership across communities and cultures.”

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