Jewish Federation’s Cultural Arts Program lets people enjoy their passion in a Jewish context
While the Jewish Federation of the Greater San Gabriel and Pomona Valleys’ Jewish Book Festival has been running successfully for 25 years, the organization has always looked for new and exciting ways to engage with the community. In 2008, the Jewish Federation embarked on a mission to “connect people’s passions to things they enjoyed and doing it in a Jewish context,” according to Jason Moss, Executive Director of the Jewish Federation.
“One of the ideas that was discussed and later implemented was to bring Jewish culture and art to the community, give people a chance to appreciate or participate in things they were passionate about, and enable people to find connection,” he said.
The first instance of this new venture was the Festival of Jewish Music that was held back in December 2008. It was designed “to bring people together to sing Jewish music when they were being inundated with other music.”
Following the success of the Festival of Jewish Music, several community members who had come together to sing during the concert approach the organization it create a community choir and several months later Kol HaEmek was established. Soon after, the Jewish Federation then hired Cantor Judy Sofer to run its new Cultural Arts Program. She created programs that “exposed the community to what is created by Jews,” musically, theatrically, and gastronomically.
Kol HaEmek (Voice of the Valley) Community Chorale, conducted by Cantor Sofer, is the only Jewish Community Choir in Southern California. It celebrates Jewish music of all types and styles, liturgical and secular, traditional and contemporary. Kol HaEmek includes singers from throughout the region. Each year they present at least two concerts, as well as singing at Shabbat services, performing at cantors’ concerts, and singing at other Jewish musical events throughout Southern California. In 2017, the group performed at the North American Jewish Choral Festival in upstate New York.
JFed Players, Jewish Federation’s theater company, according to Moss, “lets actors on the stage live out their fantasy within a Jewish context, offers opportunities for those behind the scenes, and allows attendees to see shows rooted Jewishly by context, writers, or songwriters.” The group is “a community within a community where people can deepen their involvement and passion and feel like part of a family.” Since its establishment in 2011, each year they have staged a fall play, usually a comedy, and a spring musical. To celebrate the Jewish Federation’s 30th anniversary, the JFed Players will present Fiddler on the Roof in the spring of 2024. Moss describes it as the group’s most ambitious production yet.
“The shows are really rewarding and fun,” Sofer added. “A lot of the participants have professional background. It’s about the people. This Is their life.”
Shortly after the Cultural Arts program began, the Jewish Youth Orchestra was founded in 2012 as part of the program. Over the years, the group has performed at the Skirball Museum, Nixon Library, Jewish Federation’s Jewish Food Festival and Every Person Has a Name, and at many other events and venues. Because original members of the orchestra have left the area to attend college, a new group is slowly being formed.
Since of the things that connect Jews is food, the Cultural Arts program created its Jewish Cooking Connection, a monthly cooking show, during the time that COVID prevented in-person activities. Wherever Jews have lived in the world, local cuisine was adopted and adapted to the Jewish holidays, traditions, and to comply with Kosher dietary laws. During the Cooking Connection series, the presenters travel around the greater San Gabriel and Pomona Valleys, going inside home and synagogue kitchens, sharing a wide variety of Jewish foods from talented Ashkenazi, Sephardic, and Mizrahi cooks and bakers. With the success of the Jewish Cooking Connection, the Jewish Federation is planning a culinary trip to Israel in late 2024.
And while not technically part of the Jewish Federation’s Cultural Arts program, its annual Jewish Book Festival is celebrating its 25th year and is still going strong. Twenty-five years ago community members were meeting authors in their homes, with just a few attendees. Gradually, the program expanded to meeting in synagogues and public spaces across the community, with upwards of 200 attendees for several events each year. COVID brought about the biggest change: Zoom. Now the Jewish Book Festival attracts attendees and authors from all over the world. In 2022 the festival launched its “One Book, One Community” program, giving book clubs, book groups, and the general community—from Glendale to Rancho Cucamonga—an opportunity to read and discuss the same book.
“With everything we offer, the bottom line is that our cultural arts program gives people a wide variety of enjoyable ways to connect with the community,” Moss summarized.
Ilene Schneider has been chronicling Jewish life in Orange County for five publications since 1978. She has served as a communications consultant for a number of Jewish organizations. She is a contributing writer to Jlife Magazine.