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Philly Native Helps Create Arts Fest

July 21, 2011 By:
Renee Ghert-Zand, JE Feature
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Karen Brunwasser

JERUSALEM

The first thing Karen Brunwasser did when she moved to Israel in the summer of 2005 was buy a huge poster of the Philadelphia skyline and hang it in her apartment. While that poster still figures prominently in her home, it's Jerusalem's cityscape that's the focus of her attention these days.

As deputy director of the Jerusalem Season of Culture, a new showcase of contemporary art and culture inspired by and reflecting the nature of Israel's ancient capital, Brunwasser, 34, is having a busy and rewarding summer.

Jerusalem has been hosting performances in dance, visual arts, music, poetry, philosophy and new media. Brunwasser is in charge of "all the non-artistic stuff," the administrative, logistical and fundraising aspects of the program, which began in May and runs through July.

As the only non-Israeli native on the leadership team, she has been the face of the project to international funders. The season is being spearheaded by the Schusterman Foundation-Israel in partnership with the Jerusalem Municipality, the Jerusalem Foundation and others.

Brunwasser began working for the Schusterman Foundation-Israel in 2008. When she was put in charge of the foundation's Jerusalem portfolio, she recalled, "at first we didn't know what we were going to do."

Armed with the goal of "making Jerusalem a more vibrant and pluralistic" place, the foundation committed to effect a "Jerusalem Renewal."

In researching renewal processes in other cities like Liverpool, Edinburgh, Savannah and Philadelphia, she discovered that "culture was often a piece of the puzzle, and often it was a very significant catalyst for renewal."

Around 80 percent of the Jerusalemites Brunwasser spoke to mentioned culture as an important force. People "felt it was here, but off the radar."

Indeed, Jerusalem has traditionally played host to a variety of internationally regarded festivals during the summer months. In addition, the city is bursting with museums and art schools, "not to mention the amazing aesthetics, the spirituality of the city, the history, the depth, the cultural diversity," she said.

"There is this amazingly rich cultural environment, but somehow the perception of the city was that it was a place where nothing was happening.

"On one hand it wasn't true -- but on the other hand, there could be more of it, it could be better promoted and better coordinated. It was sort of scattered and lacked a strategic vision for how to take these pieces and make them into a sum that is more than just the sum of its pieces," Brunwasser said.

Consequently, Brunwasser, together with the program co-directors, Naomi Bloch Fortis and David Gappel, and artistic director Itay Mautner, were tasked with adding content that was very Jerusalem-specific.

They sought art and cultural experiences "that aspire to ask the question of what happens when excellent creativity meets the spirit of Jerusalem, such that the end result is something that could only happen here," she explained.

As a result, many groups have partnered together to bring internationally renowned artists to give unique performances, as well as to stage more grass-roots activities and provide opportunities for local artists.

For instance, interspersed with a concert by operatic superstar Renée Fleming and a farewell performance by the Merce Cunningham Dance Company are a philosophy festival, a new public art festival and a cultural festival that turns the Machane Yehuda market into a bustling, vibrant performance space every Monday night in July.

Six years after her aliyah, Brunwasser is thrilled to be living in Jerusalem and doing the work that she is doing.

"It's a dream come true," she said. "Jerusalem is the love of my life. I would not have moved 6,000 miles away from my family if it weren't.

"I find this city sort of eternally inspiring and challenging. But I think living in this city makes me a better person."

She attributes her embrace of Jerusalem's diversity to her education in Philadelphia's public schools and the fact that she grew up in Center City.

"I feel very strongly about being a Philadelphian," she said.

"There's a humility to Philadelphia that I like. And Jerusalem, despite its grandeur, has a modesty to it. There are elements that I think suit my Philly girl."

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