Building a More Inclusive Jewish Film World

In these digital times, when there is more access than ever to films from around the world on Video-On-Demand sites -- Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Prime and even Israel Film Center Stream -- it is not hard to find a Jewish film, anytime, anywhere, on almost any device. Still, Jewish film festivals continue to grow and spread across the country, keeping alive not only Jewish life, but the spirit of communal viewing and interaction beyond the screening. In his opening remarks at a recent gathering of Jewish Community Center arts and culture programmers, President and CEO of the JCCA, Allan Finkelstein, noted how "hot" film festivals are for JJCC's and Y's across the country and how for many film festivals have become the cornerstone of their arts and culture programming.

The Jewish world is in the midst of an ongoing crisis as Jewish engagement is at an all-time low and lack of connection to religion as well as Jewish culture is growing fast. A recent study conducted by the Pew Research Center showed that Jewish association continues to decrease from generation to generation. On the flip side, one of the few growing areas in Jewish life is film festivals. The Jewish Film Presenters Network is a network of Jewish film programmers established to share ideas, share costs and raise the standard of film presentation. This group now has over 250 active Jewish film programmers and the numbers keep going up.

With over 150 Jewish film festivals around North America in a variety of shapes and sizes, most are growing and very successful. From Hawaii to Arkansas, Jewish film festivals are popping up in every city, town and local library, and, of course, like the old Jewish joke about the man on the desert island with two synagogues -- (one he would never step foot in!) if there is one Jewish film festival somewhere, a second needs to open as competition. An estimated count shows that more Jews attend Film Festivals than synagogue. From a survey conducted by the Jewish Film Presenters Network last spring with a sample of 50 of the Jewish film festivals, there were over 375,000 attendees at over 2350 films, with close to a $5 million total of budgets.

One reason for the growth in Jewish festivals is the rise in quality and quantity of Israeli and Jewish films in the last 10 years. This niche has become a substantial market for many filmmakers and distributors, as many Jewish festivals pay for film rights. Filmmakers include "Jewish Film Festivals" in their business plans as major potential revenue sources. The distributors of the award-winning Israeli film Bethlehem made the Jewish film festivals a crucial part of their outreach plan, not just to create buzz for the film, but as a source of income before the box office count from the release. And this was before it was overlooked for an Academy Award nomination.

But as audiences continue to age, it is crucial for these Jewish film festivals to engage younger, less affiliated audiences, in order to survive. To attract the elusive and much sought after audiences in their 20s and 30s, Jewish film festivals will have to become more inclusive and broader in their mission and film selections. Interestingly, The JCC in Manhattans's Other Israel Film Festival, a festival about Arabs in Israel, attracts higher percentage of young attendees.

This is not their mother's or grandmother's festival. It is the progressive approach to Israel that attracts this crowd. Other Israel dares to bring up critical opinions and controversial approaches to Israel -- an approach the older generation could consider a Shanda!

To take that mission to the next level, The JCC in Manhattan created a festival that is not specifically a Jewish film festival, but embraces values of inclusivity and diversity that are important to Jewish life. ReelAbilities: NY Disabilities Films Festival became the country's largest festival of its kind, taking place in 30 locations throughout New York, and quickly spreading to 14 additional major cities in the U.S. ReelAbilities is in no way specifically a Jewish film festival, yet it grew out of the mission of the JCC's Center for Special Needs which is one of the most active in the city. Bringing the community together and changing perceptions of people with disabilities could not be more aligned with Jewish ideology.

With this notion in mind, the JCC in Manhattan created our weekly Cinematters program here at, to expand beyond our weekly Jewish film series. Now we include films about social change that pertain to our community at large and the Jewish community specifically. Other Jewish festivals started including films that create social change, that are not specifically Jewish. The film After Tiller, about the doctors performing third trimester abortions, examines tough questions in this controversial topic. What could be more Jewish than that? To continue to thrive, Jewish film festivals need to branch out and be as inclusive in their selections as possible. Then, life will imitate art, and the community will follow.