A month ago, as we neared the 9th annual Jewish Arts Collaborative’s Museum of Fine Arts Boston Hanukkah celebration, a highly-anticipated evening for thousands of people, one of our performers approached me and nervously said, “Are my performers going to feel welcome and safe at the Hanukkah celebration this year?”
While she is Jewish herself, her concern stemmed from the fact that her seven performers each brought different cultural identifies and backgrounds to the work, including a Muslim performer. Given the atmosphere around Israel since October 7th, I understood the many layers of concern embedded in the words “welcome and safe” – and I immediately said, “Right now we all need what Hanukkah offers us – a moment of light and community during a dark time. It is our job as an organization to ensure that you, all our performers, and our guests feel welcome and safe.”
At a time when other Hanukkah celebrations across the country were being cancelled out of fear, this conversation centered us on the need of this moment as we embarked on a major community celebration on December 7, exactly two months after the attacks of October 7.
That evening, 2,300 people gathered in the world-class museum to celebrate the light of Hanukkah – double the number of participants from 2022, when we came back in-person following the pandemic. The need to be together and the relief to be in community was palpable. Throughout the evening, dozens of people said to me “we needed this.” A friend told me that her daughter had a girl at school yell, “I don’t like Jews,” and that this Hanukkah and this celebration meant more than ever. Israeli fellow preschool parents filled with emotion as they thanked me for this festival event; it was the communal, light-filled moment they needed. Long time leaders told me how grateful they were for a space to come together in community because they have felt so alone. Non-Jewish participants thanked us for sharing Jewish traditions with the community.
It’s one thing to theorize that our community would need this fortifying and celebratory moment. It was another to actually experience it: the levity and sheer joy of a Horah with hundreds of people; the sound of Ocho Candelikas reverberating across the magnificent marble indoor courtyard; the line of smiling faces looking at art as they anticipate fresh fried latkes.
As the Executive Director of a Jewish arts organization, I’ve spent years trying to quantify the “Return On Investment (ROI) of cultural programming” – to define the intangible and deep impacts and ROI that we all know the arts can inspire. This Hanukkah, our Boston Jewish community and I had a visceral reminder of what the ROI of cultural work really is.
For this evening to be possible, we had to adopt the mantra, “Hanukkah is not political.” At a time when Israeli politics have politicized all things Jewish, we needed to make it clear that this Hanukkah was about light, community, and connection.
This is how art and culture can uniquely create community, bring people together in joy and creativity, and open doorways.
It’s hard to define cultural ROI. It’s hard to define the feeling of safety. It’s hard to define the impact of community celebration. All these things may be hard to define, but what I know is that the feeling at our Hanukkah celebration this year reminded us of the power of and need for spaces for community connection and celebration like this, crucial now more than ever.