There’s no shortage of choices for Westchester residents interested in Jewish-themed films, lectures and entertainment. The Westchester Jewish Film Festival opens this week and runs through April 30 at the Jacob Burns Film Center (burnsfilmcenter.org) in Pleasantville, and the Third Annual Jewish Cultural Festival will take place April 19-May 1 at the JCC on the Hudson (JCContheHudson.org).
It’s no accident that these festivals have been growing in popularity. There’s a hunger for ways to connect to Jewish identity and culture that may not necessarily include synagogue attendance or traditional observance.
“It’s no secret that people are not belonging to synagogues,” said Elliot Forchheimer, executive director of the Westchester Jewish Council. “The Rivertowns are the least affiliated portion of Westchester. The JCC is repositioning itself, looking at what do people need. People want to celebrate Jewish culture.”
For those who are non-observant, services can be intimidating or uncomfortable. Going to a movie, concert, lecture or a show removes that discomfort.
“It’s accessible, tends to be inexpensive, and the barrier of being less literately Jewish goes away,” Forchheimer added.
That certainly informed the thinking behind the JCC on the Hudson’s programming for the upcoming cultural festival.
“We’re offering diverse programming, which will appeal to people in many age levels,” said Lois Green, a co-coordinator of the festival. Besides having events at the JCC in Tarrytown, other venues include Lyndhurst Historic Trust Carriage House in Tarrytown, the Irvington Town Theater and some synagogues. In addition to films there will be performances, conversations, a Yiddish class and celebrations of Israel’s Independence Day.
“There’s a new broadening of what a Jewish community looks like going forward,” said Green. “It’s not just a religious identification.”
For the Jacob Burns Film Center, providing more than an evening at the movies is part of the festival’s mission. For the first time, the festival is offering a film studies course, on four Tuesdays, starting April 7, where films will be screened and then discussed.
“Adult education is huge,” said Karen Goodman, a film programmer at the center. “Our audience is that demographic. It’s about looking a little deeper.”
While the festival is intended to appeal to both Jews and non-Jews, “one of our significant goals is to reach out beyond the Jewish community,” Goodman said. “Our audience is committed to coming to new films.”
Still, Goodman acknowledged that “our demographic is the entire element of Jews who are secular, but for whom the history, heritage and culture is enormously important. These are films that enrich with stories about Jewish life and culture.”
So there are documentaries about the tradition of Jewish delis and the significance of the Red Apple Rest for generations of Catskill-bound New York City dwellers; life in the IDF and the legacy of Jewish entertainers and movie-makers. Israeli films are plentiful, as are Jewish-themed movies from Europe and the United States. April 27 will feature “A Borrowed Identity,” an Israeli film by Eran Riklis about a Palestinian boy’s coming-of-age in Israel. Some film screenings also include live performances.
“We provide a balanced forum of films and conversations,” said Goodman.
It’s clearly working. As she said, “each year we have more attendance.”