Filmgoers may not notice the immediate changes, but when the Seattle Jewish Film Festival rolls around next spring, its underlying structure will be far different from the way it has operated since its inception 17 years ago.
On June 20, the board of the Seattle regional office of the American Jewish Committee, the festival’s supporting parent organization, voted to discontinue in that role.
“We have a very small staff, and we can’t do it all,” said Wendy Rosen, executive director of the AJC’s Seattle regional office. “The reason that we’re doing it is that we are going to focus our attention and energy on programming in our principal areas of activity.”
That activity focuses on ethnic and religious diplomacy, advocacy for Israel’s security, and energy independence, among other areas. Rosen and AJC board president Amy Ragen cited as examples of the office’s focus the upcoming honors of former U.S. attorney John McKay and a visit by India’s former ambassador to Israel — and associated programming with Seattle’s Indian community.
But the show will go on. Rosen said her board is very supportive of the festival and doesn’t want to see it disappear, and wanted instead to give it what she called a “soft landing.”
“This is a treasured asset of the community, and if anything, we want to energize the community to say this is something we want to support,” Ragen said. “It is in a good position, with a good donor base, to continue into the future and align with an organization whose mission is to bring the Seattle community together through this media of film.”
A soft landing may be at the Stroum Jewish Community Center. The SJCC’s board met on Monday to discuss moving forward with exploring the idea, but at this point, according to the center’s CEO Judy Neuman, no commitments have been made.
“It’s really an exploratory process that we’re in the midst of,” Neuman said. “We’re in conversation with AJC and exploring the possibilities of how we might participate in preserving the festival.”
If anything, said Pamela Lavitt, the director of the film festival, a move to the SJCC is long overdue.
“I think the mission of the ‘J’ and the national trend of Jewish film festivals is to be run by JCCs,” she said. “If [the JCC] approves it and embraces it in full — and I believe that they will — the goal is to keep the robustness and the integrity intact.”
Being housed in the JCC would allow for more year-round programming, Lavitt said, while the AJC office’s refocus of its mission to the national organization’s issues “don’t fully come to bear on a Jewish film festival.”
“We have to look to see what the community wants, and maybe we have more opportunity than we’ve had to program things,” she said.
Lavitt sees more family programming as a distinct possibility in promoting the SJCC’s mission.
No discussions have occurred as to how the SJCC would fund or fundraise for the festival, nor as to how the venues or flavor of the festival might change, if they do at all.
Lavitt said that while the program had lived at the AJC, the regional office’s development director devoted about a third of her time to the festival. Lavitt will likely need to hire a part-time development associate for at least this transition year.
Though AJC officials said the festival has been self-sustaining over the past few years, given the size of the AJC’s fundraising staff, “it wasn’t ever easy to raise money for AJC and raise money for the festival,” Rosen said. “It was almost like we were running two simultaneous programs, two organizations in parallel with one another.”
For the current year, several of the festival’s donors, in particular signature sponsor Martin Selig, have stepped up to ensure that the transition runs smoothly, Lavitt said.
Should talks with the JCC fall through, or if the timing for the 2013 festival doesn’t allow for an immediate transition, “we’ll work with other organizations or individuals who feel strongly about the festival,” Ragen said. “We feel that based on the strength of the festival right now, the community will step up and want to find a way to have a new home moving forward.”