When the Boston Jewish Film Festival screens the 2007 Israeli feature “The Band’s Visit” for its Summer Cinematheque on Aug. 4, it will be in-person, but with a twist. Due to ongoing COVID-19 caution, the film will be shown outdoors, at the historic Lyman Estate in Waltham.
Artistic director Ariana Cohen-Halberstam said it’s the festival’s first outdoor screening in at least 6½ years, which is how long she’s been organizing the festival. Social distancing will be practiced and masks are encouraged – but not required – for unvaccinated people.
“The Band’s Visit” is about members of a police force in Egypt who form a band and, by accident, wind up in a small town in Israel. The film stars the late Israeli actress Ronit Elkabetz, who died in 2016.
Cohen-Halberstam describes the Lyman Estate as “super cinematic and beautiful,” noting that it was used during the filming of “Little Women” several years ago.
“They’ve had live music there as well,” she said. “It should be fun.”
The al fresco screening reflects the creative ways in which Jewish organizations are planning community events during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“I think, obviously, we pay close attention to the restrictions,” Cohen-Halberstam said. “That was sort of the first hurdle we had to pass. After that, we really tried to get a grasp on what our audience would be comfortable with.”
Finding that comfort zone during an uncertain time has been on the agenda for leaders of Boston-based Jewish organizations as they discuss whether to hold virtual, hybrid, or in-person events.
Laura Conrad Mandel, executive director of the Jewish Arts Collaborative (JArts) in Newton, said her organization is “continuing to do virtual and/or hybrid,” adding, “The key for us, even when we go back to doing in-person, is the success we were seeing from virtual programs. We can reach people we couldn’t reach before.”
In August, JArts will host two virtual events in an ongoing Friday series featuring 20-minute, one-on-one conversations with Jewish artists: musician Ellen Allard on Aug. 6 and printmaking and mixed media artist Sandra Mayo on Aug. 20.
“We have really nice conversations with the artists about who they are Jewishly and artistically, dig into their Jewish story a little bit,” Mandel said, calling the 20-minute time span “enough to hold onto [an audience] and not so [long that] you get bored.”
Mandel said that “for the last period of COVID, most of the gatherings we’ve done in-person at the time were more on the public art end of things,” such as a Passover-timed hybrid digital/ physical installation at Boston’s Vilna Shul called “Golem vs. Golem” by artist Julie Weitz that explored the mythical creature of the golem and its influence on Jewish tradition and thought.
People who visited the Vilna Shul to see the images outside it could access QR codes and websites to learn more about the installation, including an interview with the artist.
“We’re really trying to think about creating not just in-person versus something online, but how do you integrate the two concepts, dig a little bit deeper no matter where you are,” Mandel said.
Executive director Dalit Ballen Horn joined the Vilna Shul last February in what she calls “a unique moment, both in terms of leadership skills required and also with strategic planning.”
Before the pandemic, the Vilna was ready to reopen after renovating its basement and main floor in time to celebrate its centenary. About two months after it reopened, the pandemic reached Massachusetts, prompting the organization to close its doors and go virtual.
“We pivoted quickly, like many other organizations,” Horn said. “We had incredible success. [People were] receptive to our virtual platform … We regularly get 500 to 600 people for [virtual] programs, even on a Sunday at 2 p.m.
“What we’re hearing from people is that there are some who want to continue to go virtual,” Horn said. “Some can’t wait for us to reopen … what we’re trying to figure out is how can we make that multi-access, the extent to which we’re able to offer in-person and virtual experiences.”
The leaders of Jewish community organizations have high hopes for the future. Horn wondered whether there could be larger concerts or film screenings at the Vilna at some point. Mandel mentioned a JArts Hanukkah celebration with its traditional partner – the Museum of Fine Arts – that would incorporate the MFA Judaica collection, eight Jewish female artists from around the world, and the national JCC movement. Cohen-Halberstam is thinking about a possible film festival in hybrid form this November.
Yet Cohen-Halberstam also recalled a feeling of déjà vu from last summer.
“I was certain we were going to be back that November [of 2020],” she said. “We’re again having conversations of what would people be comfortable with in November, what would a hybrid festival look like in November.
“We’re closely watching the Delta variant, seeing what the trends are in the variant. We remain optimistic and also realistic to make sure the festival feels safe and exciting, and also do our best to expose people to as much good and enriching programs as possible.”
“The Band’s Visit” will be shown at 7:30 p.m. Tickets are $18 and can be purchased at bostonjfilm.org. For JArts’ virtual events, go to the JLive link at jartsboston.org. The second Small Group Tours of The Vilna this summer will be held Aug. 12 at 1 p.m. Admission is $20. To register, look under the Events tab at vilnashul.org.