10 Apr Now We’re Here (A Farewell Letter from AJMF’s Founder)
The inaugural Atlanta Jewish Music Festival (AJMF1, June 5, 2010) is one of the most important days of my life. For the preceding 15 months, I worked with a dozen community volunteers to envision and launch an event that would thrive at the intersection of Atlanta’s Jewish and music communities. As a product of Atlanta’s music community and a multi-year staffer for Atlanta’s renowned Atlanta Jewish Film Festival (AJFF), I had confidence AJMF would succeed. But it was a challenging first year gaining support for an untested concept from an unproven voice (me). So we ended up establishing AJMF with a “taste of the festival,” a 1-day event featuring 4 bands at a small, intown venue. We sold out the show.
The weeks following the successful launch of AJMF proved most important for the organization. We followed up with dozens of community leaders and philanthropists, including individuals who declined to support our inaugural season, to share stories from the event and begin planning for AJMF2. When Foundation* learned about our AJMF1 programmatic success but development shortfall, they pledged $5,000 to put AJMF1 in the black and $10,000 for the future to kick off AJMF’s 2nd season.
- [Foundation has expressed an interest in staying out of the spotlight since their first year of support. We’ll continue to honor that request.]
The cash infusion was a big deal for our young non-profit but the stamp of approval was the more important prize. Foundation was and still is a highly respected leader in Jewish ATL. Their funding opened the door for other relationships in our community. So the following season, we created a 3-day festival (AJMF2 was May 19-21, 2011) and then a 5-day festival for AJMF3 (May 9-13, 2012). We added year round programming aligned with community partners’ calendars and annual events celebrating Jewish holidays. As we continued to grow, we became the go-to resource for collaborators seeking the production and curatorial expertise needed to inspire community through live Jewish music experiences. Since 2015, we’ve made our Fall calendar nearly as productive as our Spring Festival with large, community collaborations with The Shabbat Project and the Atlanta Kosher BBQ Festival (AKBF). Each successive AJMF season builds upon the season prior, as we tweak the things that work and pivot towards opportunities. It’s been an inspiring and enjoyable ride:
TOTAL AJMF ATTENDANCE
Over the past three seasons, AJMF has achieved maximum impact with year-round and Spring Festival programming. Our development opportunities seem to have peaked as well. After 9 years of soliciting support in our community, I’ve done a thorough and exhaustive scan of the support network. And this amount of time has also provided the opportunity for early supporters to wander. Some people that were instrumental in the first few seasons of AJMF no longer attend the festival or support our development efforts. I partially blame myself for failing to maintain these relationships but I recognize keeping relationships active over time is a common challenge of the human condition. I believe at this point in our history, we’re pushing the limits of what we can do with AJMF’s resources and relationships.
And that’s OK because we went 0 to 100. Our 2018 Spring Festival was a three-week long, incredible collection of contemporary Jewish music featuring national/international acts, local performers, a few important non-Jewish partnerships and so much more! When I started this work in 2009, I could not have dreamed of the expansive and celebratory festival AJMF has become. Each new experience provided me an opportunity to connect with people in my community through the transcendent power of Jewish music. These interpersonal connections are the biggest blessings for me. AJMF’s ninth season has been incredibly fulfilling and joyful.
Despite AJMF’s current success, it seems like there is not much more for me to grow. I greatly enjoy this position but I’m concerned about stagnating professionally at my age (33). Our season is cyclical and our team has become as broad as it is experienced. When I started this work 9+ years ago, I needed to lead the charge because most people didn’t believe in the mission as strongly as I did. Now, AJMF has so much positive energy and support behind it, there is no longer a gap between my interest and the community’s interest in AJMF. Our team is absolutely incredible right now and we no longer need an entrepreneur at the helm. We need a leader to maintain AJMF’s important role in our community.
I’m privileged to share that I am completing my last season as the Executive Director of AJMF. It feels like the right time to move on although you never really know until you look back in hindsight. So I remind myself the whole world is a very narrow bridge and the important part is not to be afraid.
Before I wrap up, I want to thank three very important groups of people. And at the top of this list are the talented, committed and visionary steering/board members of AJMF. These individuals contributed their time, energy and resources to build a thriving organization: Rabbi Ruth Abusch-Magder, Sarah Arogeti, Julie Aronson, Tali Benjamin, Bram Bessoff (Immediate Past President), Bennie Cohen, Drew Cohen (future Vice President), Rabbi Jonathan Crane, Ethan Davidson (Founding Co-chair), Sara Duke, Mark Gallegos, Gayanne Geurin, Rabbi Brian Glusman, Steve Grossman, Floyd Hall, Robin Zebrowitz Harpak, Becky Herring (current Board President), Lindsay Hirsch, Lynn-Anne Huck, Marcia Jacobs, Cantor Nancy Kassel, Alan Kitey, Todd Koransky (current Treasurer), Bonnie Levine, Scott Levy, Brian Meister, Rachel Meltzer (current Secretary), Michael Rabkin, Eric Robbins, Raychel Robbins (Past President), Jennie Rivlin Roberts, Shai Robkin, Sammy Rosenbaum, Phil Rubin, Rebecca Leary Safon (Founding Co-chair), Beth Schafer, Eli Sperling, Moses “Mostai” Staimez, Itai Tsur, Rich Walter (current Vice President), Micah Weiss, Howard Wexler, Valerie Root Wolpe.
I also want to personally thank every artist or group that has graced an AJMF stage(s). When I started this work in 2010, I heard about artists being asked to perform for exposure. It’s a practice that exists today yet no artist is paying rent off exposure. And for that reason, we’ve made it a priority to compensate artists fairly and frequently for their musical gifts. Some of these performers would be fine without an AJMF gig or two. But many of these artists are Atlanta’s own and many of the visiting artists made their Atlanta premier at AJMF: 4th Ward Afro-Klezmer Orchestra, Adam Klein, Afro-Semitic Experience, Amir Gwirtzman, Andrew & Polly, Ariel Root Wolpe, Ariela Ehrens, ATL Collective, Aviva and the Flying Penguins, A-WA, Axum, Baal Shem Tones, Baladino, Basya Schechter, Ben Sidran, Beth Schafer, Beyond the Pale, Big Daddy Whiskey, Billy Jonas, Bint el Funk, Book Club, Bria Kam, Cantor Jack Mendelson, Cantor Jonathan Comisar, Chana Rothman, The Cohen Bros Band, Daniel Zamir, David Broza, David Marcus, Deleon, Diwan Saz, DJ Camille, DJ Zarin, Drew Cohen, Eitan Katz, Electra, Eric & Happie, Ester Rada, Ezekiel’s Wheels, Foad Naraghi, FSQ, Gabriel Meyer Halevy, Gerard Edery, Gershone and Flavia, Girls in Trouble, Guy Mendilow, Hadar Noiberg, Ian’s Friends Band, Idan Raichel, Jacob Jeffries, Jaffa Road, Joanie Leeds, Joe Alterman, Joe Buchanan, Joey Weisenberg, Josh and the Jamtones, Josh Nelson, Jordan Dayan, Jump Babylon, Kirtan Rabbi, Klezmer Local 42, Kosha Dillz, Lazer Lloyd, Lily of the Suburbs, Lisa Loeb, The Maccabeats, Mark Michelson, Matt Citron, Max Bitner, Michael Feinberg, Mikey Pauker, Miss Emily, Mister G, Moshav, Mr. Greg, Naomi Less, Nefesh Mountain, Nick and the Grooves, No Komment, No Solution, Noa (Achinoam Nini), Noah Aronson, Odessa/Havana, Paula Krone, Paz, Peled, The Pop Ups, Prodezra, Promised Land, Random Dogs, Red Heifers, Red Hot Chachkas, Sabbath Wind, Sagol 59, Sammy K, Sammy Rosenbaum, Sarah Aroeste, Saul Kaye, Simply Tsfat, Socalled, Soulfarm, Sunmoon Pie, Supreme Ink, Sway Machinery, Tony Levitas, Tristan Hulsebos, Tsvey Brider, Vortex Park, Yael Deckelbaum, Yemen Blues, Yo La Tengo, Yotam Silberstein, Y-Love, Zale, Zusha.
Lastly, thank you Atlanta’s Jewish and music communities. You validated the theory that AJMF would be supported and I’m eternally grateful to have served you for almost a decade. I welcome your feedback on this letter and/or our journey together on AJMF’s Facebook page. Or you can drop me a personal note on my AJMF e-mail: russell (at) atlantajmf (dot) org.