Thirty-four years ago, in two American cities on opposite coasts, a group of visionaries developed what would one day become one of the most powerful vehicles for connecting Diaspora Jews to their culture: the Jewish film festival.
With numerous scholarly works and studies devoted to dissecting the state of modern Jewry in America, the increasing popularity of Jewish film festivals has made one fact abundantly clear: Jews crave a meaningful connection to their roots. With over 100 Jewish Film Festivals in existence today, Jews all over the world flock to theaters anticipating an authentic connection to their heritage. For some Jews, participation in their local Jewish Film Festival is the only way in which they feel Jewish.
Does such a statement justify the prevailing attitude among Jewish leaders and professionals that the fabric of our once vibrant and engaged Jewish community is in danger of unraveling? While widely debated studies like the 2013 Pew survey of American Jewry points to a steady decline in religious identification and a significant rise in interfaith marriage, what do these statistics actually say about today’s Jewish community except that it is continually changing, evolving, and presenting new challenges?
As a Jewish professional working in the Jewish world, I have observed many of my colleagues grow disheartened by the possibility that the progress we have made in preserving Jewish culture is in danger of being compromised. My trepidation is that too much credence is being given to the results of quantitative surveys and not enough consideration is being paid to programs that are already working to establish a vibrant Jewish community.
As director of the Philadelphia Jewish Film Festival for over six years, I have been told again and again how important the Festival has been to people’s lives. Phrases like “It makes me feel proud to be Jewish” or “It makes me feel like I am really part of a community” are common.
In the past decade, Jewish film festivals around the world have not only proven successful in serving diverse populations of the Jewish community, but they have begun to expand their reach to other groups. Through their extensive outreach efforts and opportunities for cross-cultural programming and marketing, Jewish film festivals have proved the potential to grow and attract new and engaged audiences. Since the exclusivity once coveted by American Jewish communities to satisfy their need for safety and acceptance is no longer necessary, it really is the scope, breadth, and quality of Jewish film programming that makes the model of the Jewish film festival so inviting and engaging.
Through the power of compelling stories, Jewish film festivals have penetrated to the heart of what moves us and accomplished the difficult feat of unifying Jews of varying religious affiliations and denominations, as well as bringing together Jews of competing ideologies and political leanings. This is because Jewish film festivals work hard to cultivate a neutral platform for the exchange of ideas and the sharing of experiences. Not only have younger and older generations discovered a common language and understanding through film, but Jews who want to share their history, culture, and heritage with their non-Jewish friends are now able to do so in an open and welcoming environment.
It is my hope that Jewish film festivals continue to evolve and adapt, as this will ensure both growth and longevity. In my six years serving the Philadelphia Jewish Film Festival I have witnessed the immense impact of my work. I have watched PJFF’s audience double and I have listened to patrons wax poetic about how films they viewed at our festival changed their perspectives and opened their hearts and minds to new possibilities. This feeling of making a difference in my community is just one of the many reasons why I love my job and why no matter where life leads me, I will always support my local Jewish film festival.