There may be nothing quite as universal and particular as food. Except, perhaps, the Jewish people, whose Diaspora has placed us among every ethnic group, adopting and adapting its cuisine and giving Jews a certain expertise and ownership of deli and delicacies, from harissa to smoked fish, shakshuka to kibbeh.
And while food always reflects its culture, American culture today—and, consequently, American Jewry—is steeped in a foodie frenzy. It’s a time when celebrity chefs are America’s new rock stars, food trucks line city squares at lunchtime, community gardens have sprung up in our neighborhoods, craft beers and pickling have become hipster hobbies and food certifications signal not only whether a product is organic or kosher, but if it was farmed using environmentally sustainable and humane practices.
All this may explain the astronomical success of The Jewish Federation of Greater Washington’s Jewish Food Experience®, an online hub of recipes and Jewish culinary stories along with events such as lectures, tastings and, of course, cooking classes. Funded by the United Jewish Endowment Fund, the Jewish Food Experience® has proven so successful at engaging new community members that the Federation is now working to pilot the project through Jewish federations in Orange County, New York; St. Louis, Missouri and Austin, Texas.
“Food is identity,” said Steve Rakitt, CEO of The Jewish Federation of Greater Washington. “And through the Jewish Food Experience®, we’ve found a compelling new way to reach and nurture the Jewish identities of members of our community.”
At the Jewish Federation of Greater Orange County, the Jewish Food Experience® represents a departure from its traditional programming: fundraisers announced by formal invitations. “This is a totally different way of approaching people,” said executive director Joyce Waschitz, citing online promotion and a softer goal of “meeting new faces and making new friends.” “We are acquainting them with Federation, so we can ask them in the future.”
In producing each of its three events this fall, the group mined local talent to offer a fresh perspective on Jewish community. Its first program, a session on sprouting seeds and beans and pegged to a passage in Genesis, was hosted by Harley and Alyse Matsil, also known as the Wheatgrass Queen and King. The Matsils started their business, Perfect Foods, in the basement of a kosher Brooklyn butcher shop and now run a 10,000 square-foot growing facility in Goshen, New York.
In its first Jewish Food Experience® event, The Jewish Federation of St. Louis is aiming to teach young Jewish professionals the art of hosting. Held at a glass-making factory, the event will feature local celebrity restaurateurs and bartenders along with a rabbi who can give pointers on hosting Shabbat dinner. It’s a new tool for engaging young people who may think about Federation as their parents and grandparents’ organization, says Nathaniel Rosenblum, the federation’s senior associate of community development.
In Austin, “food is definitely the biggest thing on the scene right now next to music,” said Dana Epstein, assistant executive director of the local Federation. To add a foodie twist to tradition, the group has developed the “Shmoozie Supper Club,” a culinary Shabbat dinner with each of four courses connected to a Jewish theme. (A body-and-soul concept at the first dinner involved polenta crackers and an eggplant dish meant to represent “primordial ooze.”) Held in venues throughout the city, the idea is to bring Jewish community to the disparate parts of Austin, Epstein said. “We’re not trying to pull them in. We’re trying to go to them.”
Each of the three pilot programs will run though Passover of 2016. Currently, JFE® has made a number of smaller components of the larger program available for replication in markets across the country. “We are so proud of all that JFE® has accomplished in Washington and look forward to sharing the fruits of our labor with colleagues across the country in 2016” said Paul Entis, JFE®’s Director.
Photo by Linda Wolpert.