Jewish cultural festival aims to strengthen community

UTICA – A venerable part of the community, the Jewish Community Center, 2310 Oneida St., invites the public to a day of fun, history and culture sharing.

JEWtica, Utica’s premier Jewish cultural festival, will take place from 12-8 p.m. on Sunday, June 12 at the JCC.

JCC officials said the hope was to make it an annual event. The purpose of the event is not only to celebrate and share Jewish culture, but also to reach out to the community to strengthen and develop it.

Joe Silberlicht, director of the festival and member of the JCC board of directors for three years, explained the current situation and the reality that many Jewish communities are facing.

“Utica at one time had a very large and vibrant Jewish community,” he said. “We had three fairly vigorous congregations. And the size of these congregations, unfortunately, is shrinking. Some are in trouble. Others get smaller.

At one time, Silberlicht said, many Jewish children in the community attended preschool at the JCC.

Vic Pearlman was the Executive Director of the JCC for 14 years and served on the board 11 years prior. “When the JCC first opened in the early 1970s, there must have been 50 to 60 Jewish children attending preschool, learning about Jewish history and culture,” Pearlman said. “Now our kindergarten has about 150 children, and we could have five Jewish children among them.”

Silberlicht said this “decrease” is not unique to Utica and is apparent in many cities and towns around the world.

“Because of my position on the board, I started to think about this issue more holistically,” he said. “About what we can do. The traditional Jewish community has shrunk and we asked how we could reinvigorate it and re-build pride in the Jewish community. We do not want to see ourselves as a declining minority but as an exciting religious and ethnic group.

And with this goal in mind, the JCC started organizing the JEWtica cultural festival. “We want to show what the JCC and the various synagogues in the area have to offer,” Silberlicht said. “And maybe we can find the unaffiliated Jewish people in the Mohawk Valley who haven’t stepped forward.”

The festival will include kosher food, live music, performances and activities the whole family can enjoy.

“I’m very excited for Isle of Klezbos, a klezmer band from New York,” Silberlicht said. “Klezmer is a kind of Eastern European Jewish folk music, and I think it’s appropriate for that community.”

Besides food and fun, the story will be shared with the participants. Participants will have the opportunity to “ask the rabbi” their questions about Jewish practice and observance. Other exhibits will shed light on the cultural heritage of Utica’s Jewish community, past and present.

“The first Jewish immigrants who came to Utica were usually immigrants from Poland in the mid-1800s,” Silberlicht said. “The very first immigrants we know of came from Poland in 1847 before other Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe followed them. These early immigrants were typically peddlers, but they based themselves in Utica and spread throughout upstate New York to sell their wares. The next generation stayed here and built a thriving Jewish community in Utica – and most of us can trace our ancestry from there.

Silberlicht said Jewish composers have written a significant number of Broadway musicals in the past. And the Broadway Babes, a local band from Rome, will perform sets.

Another festival highlight is Jeffrey Yoskowitz, chef and co-author of the book “The Gefilte Manifesto,” which reinvents traditional Eastern European Jewish cuisine. Yoskowitz will give cooking demonstrations and a lecture about what life was like for Jews in shtetls — small villages — in Eastern Europe before immigrating to the United States.

While the festival will be free and there will be a wide range of kosher foods available, there will be stalls selling traditional Jewish foods available for those looking to take something home. Proceeds from the sale of food with the help of JCC programs.

The cornerstone of the event is the launch of the Mohawk Valley Jewish Hall of Fame. Various members of the local Jewish community throughout history who have had an impact are being investigated. Silberlicht said there is already one lined up and he hopes to induct more each year as long as they have the festival.

“We don’t want to reveal the identity of our first inductee, but she was born and raised in Utica,” Silberlicht said. “And she had quite an impact on Reform Judaism.”

Pearlman said the hope is to make it an annual event, but it all depends on the community.

“At present, [Silberlicht and I] are the youngest in the JCC,” Pearlman said. “There are not many young people, but if we could find people, even our age, who want to carry on the tradition and share the culture, we plan to do so next year and the years to come.”

Those interested in volunteering with the JCC can call 315-733-2343 or email [email protected] Interested sellers can call the JCC or email [email protected]

In the event of rain, all activities will be moved indoors. Free entry. Street parking is extremely limited, but free parking and free shuttle service is available to and from Temple Emanu-El at 2710 Genesee St. in Utica.

For more information about the JCC, upcoming events and programs, visit jccutica.net

Darcy J. Skinner