By Pauline Dubkin Yearwood (09/28/2007) published in Chicago Jewish News
Since he founded Kfar Jewish Arts Center five years ago, Adam Davis says he’s been “living like a shul mouse” while he runs the organization on a shoestring.
Those days may soon be over. Donors are starting to recognize and support Kfar (the name means village in Hebrew), which produces musical and performance events designed for young Jewish audiences. Board members are signing up. And Davis is planning to reach out to more audience members in more demographic groups.
All this may come as a surprise to some observers since Kfar also suffered a major blow (as did the whole Chicago music scene) in the past year: the closing of the HotHouse, the Chicago world music club where the organization put on many of its shows. (continues after the jump)
“That was unfortunate,” Davis says. “It really helped our shows and events” to have them at the club. “Jewish cultural events in general do really well when they’re framed in the context of being part of this broader world culture. It legitimizes what we’re doing, brings it out of the ghetto, both for Jews and for the broader community. The general public is far less willing to venture into a synagogue or community center for these events, and, for better or for worse, mostly worse, so are most young Jewish adults,” he says.
Studies, including one done this year by several prominent Jewish sociologists for the National Foundation for Jewish Culture, bear him out, showing that many Jews in the 18-34 age group connect to Judaism better through cultural programs than any other types of events. Those same young Jews regularly pack New York City venues for the kind of cultural events Kfar produces in Chicago.
The study and others like it “proved the correlation between young adults and Jewish cultural events and proved out everything I’ve always thought about, the foundation on which I created Kfar. That was a formative part of our identity,” Davis says.
So he remains upbeat. With the demise of the HotHouse, he says, come more opportunities. A Sept. 30 Kfar-sponsored performance by Golem, a folk-punk-klezmer band, is at Schubas, a prestigious Lakeview venue, and Davis is also working with the Empty Bottle, another popular club in Wicker Park, and Wild Hare, a reggae club in Lakeview.
Also upcoming is Kfar’s regular “Knishmas” event, which Davis calls “our annual alternative to the Christmas alternatives-most of those events tend to be big drinkfests, and I found there was a need for something a little bit more culturally and artistically inclined.” Look for details on the event shortly.
In addition, Davis is planning a February program with an Israeli hip-hop group along with the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago’s Young Leadership Division, and is also working more closely with several synagogues to plan events.
Does this mean Kfar has gone mainstream?
Not exactly, Davis says. It’s just a matter of reaching out to different audiences. Some organizations, he contends, “are making attempts to do some ‘this is the kind of programming you want because you’re young adults’ thing, and by and large it’s reaching the same 200 or 300 people, the 20-percenters that are already involved. Everyone’s kind of preaching to the choir. I don’t see many organizations embracing a grassroots approach, letting people dictate their own interests and affinities.”
That’s what Davis hopes to do with Kfar, perhaps someday taking advantage of what he sees as another lost opportunity-follow-up programs for birthright Israel alumni.
“Programs like Kfar’s are really worthwhile as a birthright follow-up if the point is to foster a connection to Israel and to (young people’s) own identity,” he says. “What better way than through culture and the arts? I think that’s a slam dunk.”
There’s even more in Kfar’s future. “I’m hoping by next year we can move into the phase I’ve always wanted to go into, working directly with artists to develop new material. We haven’t yet had the support for that,” Davis says.
“Kfar is not just about the young adult piece,” he continues. “As we develop and grow and take on more board members, it’s going to grow beyond doing shows at clubs. Hopefully we’ll do more things with the synagogue community and bring us more to suburban audiences, and do things with artists, and things with a family focus, using the Jewish arts as a way to educate.”
That all takes resources, though, and funds have been hard to come by, “especially in a town dominated by large central fund-raising organizations,” Davis says. Yet now “there are donors starting to come forward. Thank G-d that’s finally happening,” he says. “Young people have been contributing in age-appropriate amounts. No one under the age of 40 is writing five-figure checks, but still, they’re starting to recognize the value.”