The Origins of JCC Maccabi® ArtsFest

December 13, 2017

The Origins of JCC Maccabi® ArtsFest

One of the big questions Jewish parents face is how to keep teens engaged in immersive Jewish experiences following the B’nai Mitzvah.

Participation in the JCC Maccabi Games have long provided Jewish parents a terrific athletic option – if your teens enjoy competitive sports, they can play baseball, volleyball, run track, you name it, against a host of other JCC’s.

But, what if your teen has interests other than sports? Is there a Maccabi-like experience in which they can still converge and establish friendships among upwards of 2000 Jewish teens in a single summer, teens who come from across the country to share similar pursuits?

The answer is “yes,” and it’s called JCC Maccabi® ArtsFest. (JCC Maccabi® ArtsFest and the JCC Maccabi® Games together comprise what is known as JCC Maccabi®.)

Does your teen enjoy acting or improv, the culinary arts, dance, musical theater, social media, visual arts, rock-n-roll, or vocal music? 

If so, then your child is a perfect fit for JCC Maccabi ArtsFest, where teens don’t compete on the athletic field, but rather, they collaborate in “Master Classes” and onstage with fellow JCC teens, and express themselves as artists.     

Where did the concept for JCC Maccabi ArtsFest come from?

According to JCC of Greater Baltimore COO Paul Lurie, “The concept of ArtsFest originated around 2004-2005, ahead of the inaugural 2006 JCC Maccabi ArtsFest in Baltimore.  Staff and lay leaders from JCCs around the country and from JCC Association (JCCA) came together to talk about how to include kids who weren’t necessarily athletes but were still Jewish teenagers who might want to be involved in a large scale, immersive teen gathering.”

Dale Busch, the JCC Executive Vice President at the time, worked with then Cultural Arts Director, Nancy Goldberg, and former JCC President Buddy Sapolsky to offer up Baltimore as the first host city to pilot the experience. They collaborated with the folks at JCCA to help develop the curriculum and model for the program.

“We wanted to elevate the arts and show kids there is more than winners and losers,” says Dale Busch. “We wanted to put kids that are often introspective into groups and see what they could create, to make our teen artists feel special.”

Today, the JCC Maccabi ArtsFest model is very similar to what it was when it was first conceived in 2004-05.  According to Paul, “We engage teens with an arts focus in a specialty area, and they get to be with Jewish teenagers from all over the country and do something during the day that they’re passionate about, and it’s all built on the spirit of collaboration, which is different than the Games model, which is built on competition.”

The teens work with experts in their chosen arts specialty, and the culmination is a final performance – a showcase that brings together all the arts specialties and shows what the teens have accomplished during the week.

Nancy Goldberg explains that the program is intended “to build strengths, ignore weaknesses and to see where the kids go and what they create at the end.  To see what they come up with in such a short period of time is absolutely remarkable!”

Baltimore-based artist Jay Wolf Schlossberg-Cohen served as artistic consultant for the original JCC Maccabi ArtsFest, and called the showcase a “smashing, extraordinary, and very emotional success.”

He says, “It was a good day to be a Jew, no matter what your Jewish background. We changed Jewish lives and we did it through a process.”   

This year JCC Maccabi Games and ArtsFest – will be held in Orange County, and Long Beach, California. Application for Summer 2018, and information can be found at jccmaccabiartsfest.org (Ever since 2010, when Baltimore hosted, for the first time, the Games and ArtsFest, ArtsFest has been a program that’s been combined with a set of games in every host city.)

Melissa Seltzer, Director of Arts & Culture Education at the JCC of Greater Baltimore, is a former Maccabi basketball player through the NJY camps, and attended the JCC of Staten Island since she was a child. Over the last five years Melissa has served as a JCC Maccabi chaperone, an ArtsFest delegation head and a full JCC Maccabi delegation head for the JCC of Greater Baltimore. She also serves as a mentor nationally for the JCC Maccabi ArtsFest program.

JCC Maccabi ArtsFest, Melissa explains, is “such a terrific opportunity for teens to learn, not only about creating and becoming an artist, but also about becoming people.”

“For many of our teens, this is their first time staying in a home in a foreign city, it may be the first time they fly on an airplane.  So ArtsFest is not just about the art events, it’s about the night events and the socializing with other teens. Really, it’s about growing up.”

Melissa has seen many a shy teen approach ArtsFest with reservation.  But then, she says, “over the course of 4-5 days, I see the kids really open up on stage.  Many sing solos.  The confidence that develops in such a short period of time is incredible.”

Randy Lutterman, Vice President for Arts and Culture and Director of JCC Maccabi Games and ArtsFest of JCCA, “curates the rooms” in each city each year; specifically, she gets the artists in the right creative specialty. 

“Our job,” says Randy, “is to remain relevant to teens, making sure they are saturated with meaningful experiences during the week of JCC Maccabi.”

“From passionate doodlers to foodies, if a kid is devoted to developing a skill, we will help them raise the bar, working with our expert Artists in Residence.  Every year at our ArtsFest Final Showcase the curtain goes up and you can see the results of their efforts.”

So many people not mentioned in this article deserve credit for the conceptual development and execution of the first JCC Maccabi ArtsFest in Baltimore, among them are: Carol Sibel, Suzanne Lapidus, Arthur Adler, and Rabbi Nina Cardin.

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