Walker International Communications Group

Interview with Eric Freeman: Building Bridges in the Neighborhood to Expand Access to the Arts

My first contact with Eric Freeman, co-founder of the Jewish Museum of New Jersey JMNJ), was a telephone call inviting New Jersey Performing Arts Center President (NJPAC) and CEO John Schreiber and me to a meeting. We met at the museum, which is located at Congregation Ahavas Sholom Synagogue. The synagogue is both a New Jersey and national landmark, and the oldest, continuously active synagogue in Newark.

As we were to learn during that first meeting, Congregation Ahavas Sholom opened JMNJ in 2003 as a means for developing educational and cultural programs that promote greater understanding between individuals representing different backgrounds and religions. It also has as its mission reaching out to other groups; creating meaningful conversations and activities around topics such as cultural diversity, social justice, prejudice, nonviolence, and shared religious values.

Eric wanted to explore with us the possibility of joint programming for a first-ever exhibition and musical series, focusing on the cultural intersections of Jews and African-Americans through jazz. After several months of planning, “Jazz, Jews and African-Americans: Cultural Intersections in Newark and Beyond” was launched. The exhibit explored the relationships among Jews and African-Americans in the performance, production and promotion of jazz, and their interactions and influences in creating this genre of music

The exhibition and events were co-produced by the JMNJ, the NJPAC, the Institute of Jazz Studies at Rutgers-Newark and WBGO Jazz FM. Five, faith-based organizations located on the same block as the synagogue and museum also joined in as partners, promoting the events to their members and opening their sites for performances. The Institute curated the 80-piece exhibition, which was showcased at the museum. WBGO Jazz FM also was a major force, featuring interviews and promoting events.

Eric was the driving force behind this very successful project, which forged new ground in the areas of neighborhood outreach, museum programming, cultural arts, community and media partnerships, as well as community engagement. We recently talked about the genesis of his involvement with the museum, and the museum’s involvement in the local arts community.

 Donna Walker-Kuhne: How did the museum get started?

 Eric Freeman: Joe Selzer, my co-founder, first visited the Jewish Museum of Florida. New Jersey is home to the fourth largest Jewish population in the United States, and Joe thought having a Jewish museum in New Jersey was a good idea. He had been working in Newark for a while and felt the city would be a good place to develop something similar. That’s when he approached me with the idea.

The Florida museum started with a traveling exhibition that was so well received that it needed a permanent home. It took over a vacant synagogue. But in Newark, we didn’t have a building that could be solely dedicated to a museum. However, Congregation Ahavas Sholom Synagogue had some space upstairs, so we agreed to work within those confines.

It was frustrating to me that the building was closed Sunday through Friday when there were fledgling organizations in need of space to hold meetings. We did host some community events, but I always had a sense that art and the synagogue went hand-in-hand; I knew there was a spiritual component with the arts. Even though I am not an artist, I had a sense that the museum, which had previously been a school and then storage, could be used to showcase art. The driving force for me was that I wanted the synagogue to contribute to Newark’s daily life.

We initially hosted meetings for La Casa De Don Pedro and an organization supporting Newark’s Liberian refugee community. Then we opened our doors to a women’s group that held several meetings in the social hall. It wasn’t optimal space, but it was space not being utilized.

As the museum’s doors prepared to open, we invited Linwood Oglesby, who was the Executive Director of the Newark Arts Council (NAC) at that time, to view our new facility. One of our many goals was community collaboration, and we discussed creating a gallery for the arts. Within a year, a friend of Linwood’s had created a plan to develop the space. Our first event was participation in the NAC’s annual Open Doors event in October.

Ultimately, that’s why I pushed so hard to develop the space for the museum. I understood that art would work well upstairs, but I didn’t necessarily have a clear understanding of what form that would take. So, I focused on making sure that the room was ready and available, and letting passionate and talented people know that we were creating a venue that could be used for them to express and showcase their talents.

 Donna: When did you see you could have an impact in the community.

 Eric: During the centennial celebration and rededication of Congregation Ahavas Sholom, in which I called for a dialogue between Jews and Muslims. I invited Iman W. Deen Shareef, a member of the Council of Imans of New Jersey, to share remarks at the ceremony. For me, that ceremony not only marked the synagogue’s history in Newark, it also reaffirmed our commitment to building bridges between races, religions, and ethnicities. I also saw this as a way to get half the audience to be non Jewish.

For me, art is universal. I wanted the space to be accessible. I also believe that most religions support art and the creativity that goes along with it. A lot of houses of worship don’t feel this way. But the Torah encourages us to be more expansive in our thought, and creativity lies at the foundation of expansiveness. Why not have worship encouraging spirituality and art?

When we started the museum, I was the only one who saw it as an art gallery. I told the museum’s board that Newark Arts Council would use space for Open Doors a year in advance. Most people did not like that idea; they felt it would infringe upon what the museum was trying to do. But I knew it could only open up opportunities and provide us with guidance as to how to move forward, which it has.

Donna: How did you approach thinking about your work? What were your influences and how did you retain the spiritual component that you thought was important?

 Eric: At the heart of this, I have three sisters; two of them were art majors. On the other hand, I did not pursue art in high school or college. However, I have a keen understanding of the reward of pursuing art; it was similar to what I got out of sports and athletics. My sisters felt that way. How many others felt that way? And why should we do creative and innovative things in our space?

The hardest part was developing the universal appeal for our audience beyond the congregation. Of course, the Jewish Museum of New Jersey needed a Jewish theme. But for me, the most important thing was to get people from other communities to come through our doors.

The NJPAC-Jazz collaboration is a perfect example. In the beginning, I did not envision a collaboration with NJPAC. However, when I met and talked with John Schreiber, it became a possibility. I did not want rigid ideas; I wanted to open our doors up to people who have their own passion and ideas of what to do in the space, and then get out of the way. Consequently, the museum, over the last three to four years, has done quality work. We have established relationships with NJPAC, the Institute of Jazz Studies, and WGBO, which have allowed us to fulfill that mission.

 Donna: Among the unique relationships your museum has been able to foster is partnerships with diverse faith-based organizations, that support your programming and events. How did that come about?

 Eric: I developed the faith-based collaborations in 2010. Former First Lady Michelle Obama has a cousin, who is a rabbi on the southside of Chicago. His name is Capers Funnye. They called him “Obama’s rabbi.” One of my board members, who came from a Harlem synagogue, knew him and made the introductions. I called Rabbi Funnye about a community event for Martin Luther King Day. My thinking was looking at the relationship between African American and Jewish communities; our shared civil rights history. I wanted people to see what Ahavas Shalom stood for.

We put together a program that wasn’t about celebrating Jewish life, but rather to honor Dr. King in a community-wide event. I approached Clinton Memorial Church next door. It was great. So many people attended, they had to show the ceremony on a screen in an overflow room. It was a very meaningful collaboration. It was a spectacular day because of the makeup of the room—we had Muslims, Christians, Whites, Blacks, Latinos—different religions and ethnicities. That’s my drive; my passion, seeing that type of diversity, and that Ahavas Shalom was responsible.

I always felt we had a responsibility to reach out to the non-Jewish community, and the most meaningful way to create engagement where there could be a room of diverse ethnicities and religions was through the arts. Jazz, art, it is apparent that the arts are the most powerful way to create these situations.

 Donna: What does the future look like in terms of your community-arts collaborations?

 Eric: Our future is bright – the museum continues to evolve. We will soon celebrate our 14-year anniversary. I would like to be in the position to be open more to the community, where the upstairs and downstairs space can be utilized more.

We hope to bring more talented artists into the building and allow them to give input into what makes sense—get out of the way and let them spin their magic. I’d also like to see more live performances, although we have limitations on the stage and with sound.  I have been working with an architect to make the space more conducive to performances, but we will need to raise significant funds to restore the building.

One of my favorite community initiatives, which was my idea, is the Seventh Avenue Elementary School art exhibit. This February will be the sixth annual. We provide them space and they also have a silent auction.

However, we do have some limitations. We can’t always bring to fruition by ourselves the projects we’d like, which is why we collaborate with other organizations.We are very committed to maintaining strong relationships with NJPAC, the Institute of Jazz Studies, and WGBO.

I understand these are leading institutions in our city and they have major programming. You also are another, perfect example of the need for partnerships. You see the value of grassroots outreach and ensuring that art reaches the community.

It’s clear to me that community, religion and art go hand-in-hand. Creativity is at the heart of spirituality. The Torah says we are to explore our creativity to the utmost, which is eminent in many ways. To me it’s a natural relationship between religion and the arts…. In the end, the pursuit of the arts expands the dimensions of my Judaism!

 Donna: Thank you, Eric, for sharing the history of the Jewish Museum of New Jersey, and your pioneering efforts to build bridges with diverse faith communities and local arts organizations. What a great example of working with what you have, what’s right in front of you, as a vehicle to create access and provide the community with ongoing arts experiences. To expand your reach, impact and influence, like Eric, consider beginning in your own backyard. Look around your neighborhood to determine who can possibly be an extension of your vision to build bridges and create more access to the arts.