While viewers may not notice a change when the Seattle Jewish Film Festival rolls around at the beginning of March, the backbone of the organization will be very different. That’s because at the beginning of this month, the board of the Stroum Jewish Community Center voted unanimously to bring the 18-year-old festival into its stable of programs. The Seattle chapter of the American Jewish Committee decided in July to release the festival, because as regional director Wendy Rosen said at the time, having to run both AJC and film festival programs, and their associated fundraising needs, “it was almost like we were running two simultaneous programs, two organizations in parallel with one another.”
Judy Neuman, the Stroum JCC’s CEO, said she’s excited about the festival’s move because “it so perfectly maps to the J’s vision.”
For the past two years, the JCC had already been running encore screenings of festival films at its Mercer Island facility, including a Father’s Day screening that has attracted three generations of families. The mantra for the current year, however, is to stay the course.
“We’re not really shooting for tremendous change this year,” Neuman said.
Pamela Lavitt, the festival’s longtime director, will stay on in her position, but now has an office on Mercer Island. The festival’s most recent co-chairs, Barri Rind and Amy Buckalter, will also continue in their roles.
Both Neuman and Lavitt have big ideas that would expand the festival into the Seattle area’s greater cultural scene, but each said they are just ideas at this point — for the time being, the focus needs to be on settling in.
“We’re trying to keep our creative juices under wraps, because there’s so much opportunity,” Lavitt said.
Being inside the halls of the JCC does allow for some immediate programming possibilities, in particular to populations the festival hasn’t served as well as it has wanted to in the past.
“The ‘J’ has strong connections in the Israeli community and with young families. I think that’s an incredible asset to the film festival,” Lavitt said.
Getting people who use the exercise facilities and then leave are another target. A film program, Lavitt said, “gives them a reason to stay.”
As far as the films themselves are concerned, Neuman said the mission of the JCC and the mission of the film festival are very similar. The AJC’s mission — interfaith and interethnic dialogue as well as Israel advocacy — didn’t always “map so well to the festival,” Lavitt said. Being associated with an organization that already has arts programming will allow for a broadening of the film selection and perhaps expand to topics that perhaps weren’t covered under the umbrella of AJC.
“We can celebrate the cultural arts of the film festival, the thematics, in new ways and build programming,” Lavitt said.
That said, the AJC won’t disappear from the festival. The agency will continue to be listed as the festival’s founding organization and sponsor its annual Bridge series, which Rosen said are a series of one to three films that focus on “interethnic, interfaith, interreligious dialogue.”
In addition, some members of the AJC’s board have continued — and even increased — their financial support of the festival as it moves to the JCC.
“We’ve promised to them that we have their back,” Rosen said.
But Lavitt cautioned that those increased donations from what she called “loyal supporters” don’t mean the festival is in the black.
“It could easily lead to our demise if we don’t make our numbers this year,” Lavitt said.
The festival’s funding, like all of the Stroum JCC’s programs that don’t drive revenue, “all comes from philanthropy and community support,” Neuman said. “We’re absolutely looking to the community, not only existing donors.”
At the same time, “we don’t want to cannibalize their donor base,” Lavitt said of the JCC. “We want to make it clear to the community that if they love the ‘J’ and love the film festival, they should support both of us.”
Moving the festival from one agency to another wasn’t necessarily an easy process, but both Rosen and Neuman said it went smoothly.
“Their board members and our board members were really committed…to the concept of a soft landing,” Rosen said. “I really do feel like it landed into very caring hands.”
“If ever there was truly a collaborative effort to keep the community’s best interest in mind, this was a great example,” Neuman said.