Kultura Collective: Fostering Collaboration and Jewish Creativity in Toronto

Lianne Kolirin

“Toronto’s arts and culture scene is one to watch, and its Jewish ecosystem within it is thriving with world-class creativity.”

So said Sam Mogelonsky, and she should know. Not only is she an accomplished visual artist, curator, and designer in her own right, she also is Director of Arts, Culture, and Heritage for the UJA Federation of Greater Toronto, and she heads up the Kultura Collective, an exciting UJA Federation of Greater Toronto initiative promoting bridge-building opportunities between cultural players within Canada’s biggest Jewish community.

Set up by UJA Federation of Greater Toronto in 2018, the aims of the collective are twofold: first, to foster the creativity of Toronto’s Jewish arts and culture community; and second, to bring Jewish arts and culture to the wider community.

Collaboration is key to the collective, which, according to Mogelonsky, aims to “transform and enrich” the cultural life of the Canadian city’s 200,000-strong Jewish community.

Collaboration is also crucial to the strategic philanthropy of CANVAS, which is why this year Kultura became an Emerging Network Grantee.

The network is made up of 14 cultural groups, among them the city’s highly regarded Toronto Jewish Film Festival (TJFF) and the Ashkenaz Festival—one of the world’s largest showcases of Jewish culture—all seeking greater artistic freedom and a broader reach.

“There are all these exciting organizations working in the arts, culture, and Jewish heritage sector and we wanted to bring them all together,” said Mogelonsky.

“We could support them more as a group than trying to support all these disparate organizations. That was the idea behind bringing all of them together under one roof.”

The full list of organizations: the Ashkenaz Foundation, The Canada-Israel Cultural Foundation, The Committee for Yiddish, The Consulate General of Israel in Toronto, FENTSTER Gallery, The Harold Green Jewish Theatre Company, Jewish Music Week, The Koffler Centre of the Arts, Miles Nadal JCC, The Ontario Jewish Archives, Prosserman JCC, The Neuberger Holocaust Education Centre, The Schwartz/Reisman Centre, and the Toronto Jewish Film Foundation.

“The Kultura Collective elevates awareness for the Jewish arts, culture, and heritage sector,” explained Debbie Werner, Executive Director of the Toronto Jewish Film Foundation. “It sheds light on the work of its member organizations and how they serve the Jewish community and connect us to the larger greater Toronto community.”

Ontario Jewish Archives and Ashkenaz Foundation: Kensington Market Walking Tour with Toronto District School Board students, 2019. Photo: Justine Apple Photography.

Inspired by the past, embracing the future and diversity

The name is inspired by the Kultur-Lige, an interwar collective that promoted Jewish culture and community across Eastern Europe but was destroyed at the height of its reach and impact.

“We drew inspiration from an important period in Jewish cultural history as a starting point. But we also want Kultura Collective to reflect the breadth of Jewish cultural influences available to us now, and to emphasize collaboration,” said Mogelonsky.

With that in mind, the collective offers all the partners a joint listing platform to reach out to new and existing audiences, and it offers annual grants of up to CAN $20,000 for collaborative initiatives “that engage new audiences through the exploration of Jewish identity.”

The collective also offers professional development workshops and seminars on issues like social media, fundraising, and donor relations.

Grant proposals are invited as a collaboration between at least two partner organizations, one Jewish. For example, a Jewish arts organization can work with community bodies such as a Hebrew day school or the Toronto District School Board.

This year, applicants were invited to engage with diversity within the community.

“Contemporary Jewish culture embraces the rich Jewish culture of Sephardic, Mizrachi, Ashkenazi, North and South America and beyond,” Mogelonsky said. “The aspiration of the Kultura Collective is that these cultural traditions will be honored and embraced.”

Four proposals were recently announced as 2022 Kultura grant recipients.

This year’s newly announced cohort of grantees includes the Ethiopian-Israeli Concert Series, thanks to a collaboration between groups including Canada Israel Cultural Foundation and the Ashkenaz Foundation, which runs the Ashkenaz Festival.

The shows were kicked off by Gili Yalo, who combines soul, reggae, funk, psychedelia, and jazz to tell, through music, his fascinating personal story arriving in Israel as a child refugee as part of Operation Moses in 1984. (See image above from Toronto’s Revival Bar. Photo: Avital Zemer.)

Samantha Parnes, managing director of the Ashkenaz Foundation, said: “Kultura has really been integral to strengthening and formalizing those partnerships through its creation of the Kultura Collective, by regularly bringing Jewish arts organizations into the room together, encouraging partnerships, ensuring that all organizations remain informed and connected to each other’s programming initiatives, and facilitating knowledge-sharing through meetings, workshops, and seminars.”

The Manor, a project documenting the eponymous historical Jewish neighborhood, will see the Ontario Jewish Archives (OJA) work with the Prosserman JCC and Beth Emeth Bais Yehuda to raise awareness of the history of Bathurst Manor, which started out as largely Jewish in the 1950s though is now more diverse.

The project will feature an exhibition of art and archival records, a one-day program where attendees will record their personal recollections of Bathurst Manor, and a livestream event sharing those recordings.

Donna Bernardo-Ceriz, Managing Director of the OJA, told the CANVAS Compendium that the grant will enable her team to create “a tangible opportunity for knowledge-exchange and learning.”

It follows Periphery, a successful collaboration between the OJA, No Silence on Race and the Prosserman JCC, which is an exhibition of commissioned portraiture and a short documentary film exploring the lives of multiracial and multi-ethnic Jews — among them those who define themselves as “Jewpanese,” “Jew-in-progress,” and a gay man of Jewish Iraqi descent.

The many varied subjects describe their personal backgrounds, as well as the questions they have faced from within the Jewish community itself, in an overall call for more diversity and acceptance.

“I know I’m Jewish and I don’t need to explain to people that I am,” says Sarah Aklilu, one of the subjects of Periphery who describes her identity as “Jewish, Ethiopian, and Canadian.”

Bernardo-Ceriz added: “Without the Kultura granting program, many of our most successful projects would not have been realized.”

Each proposal is carefully reviewed by a committee of lay leaders with an interest in the arts.

ROMada performed at the Ashkenaz Foundation’s Nu? Normal! concert series last summer at Bela Farm. Photo: Pierre Kochel.

“An exciting return to music and performance”

The pandemic has understandably disrupted the process, which is now in its third cycle. The inaugural year, 2019, saw funds awarded to five different projects, among them a celebration of Israeli cinema and a series of events around the craft of mezuzah-making. Grants were not issued in 2020, and of the six granted last year, only two have been staged so far.

“Quite a few programs were delayed because of Covid,” said Mogelonsky. “I think it will be a really exciting return to music and performance. It isn’t really the same to be singing in your bedroom to Zoom.”

The grants offer the collaborations the chance to “tell these stories that you wouldn’t be able to otherwise,” according to Mogelonsky.

They also aim to promote innovative projects that take a dynamic approach to engage diverse demographics within the community, such as interfaith families, LGBTQ+, Sephardic, Israeli or Russian communities, seniors, and those who are not engaged in daily Jewish life.

The public-facing side of the collective is more of an online platform, enabling artists and performers to reach a wider audience.

“It came out of a need that the organizations expressed to reach people they weren’t already reaching,” said Mogelonsky. The vibrant arts-based listing site — featuring everything from performances and lectures to walking tours and festivals — points users towards events and attractions they may not have initially considered.

“Way more collaboration is happening between the organizations because of Kultura. It is pushing creative projects and collaboration that otherwise probably would not have happened. JFK used to say that ‘a rising tide lifts all boats.’ That’s really our intention. To strengthen a Jewish arts and culture network in our region and to raise everyone up.”

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