Owings Mills’ Gordon Center was preparing to open its 32nd annual William and Irene Weinberg Family Baltimore Jewish Film Festival when the coronavirus struck and necessitated the closing of the venue.
“We spent a lot of time pivoting and decided to put the film festival online,” says Sara Shalva, chief arts officer of the Jewish Community Center of Greater Baltimore. “It was risky. We didn’t know if people would buy tickets. But it turned out to be an overwhelming success. We more than doubled our subscriptions, and we got great feedback about how flexible and adaptable we were.”
During the virtual festival that ran last May and June, “we began talking about how lonely and isolating it can feel during the pandemic,” says Shalva. “We started thinking about how we could gather people in the community safely. Someone came up with the idea of a drive-in movie theater.”
The idea was a game-changer, and a plan for the new theater quickly materialized.
Expected to open in September, the drive-in, Gordon Outdoors, won’t be limited to film presentations, says Shalva.
“We don’t see the big screen in the parking lot as just a drive-in movie theater,” she says. “We imagine we will have an outdoor experience where we can live-stream concerts, theater, even b’nai mitzvah and weddings. Families can hold their ceremonies in the lobby or auditorium, and guests can watch from the parking lot.”
Meanwhile, the Gordon Center has launched “Words and Ideas,” a new category of programming that brings best-selling authors, journalists and thought leaders together for enlightening virtual and — eventually — in-person discussions about literature and storytelling. One example is the Gordon’s virtual literary series “In Their Own Words.” So far, the series has featured Q&As with such noted authors as Daniel Silva, Esther Safran Foer, Adeena Sussman, Kevin Kwan and Al Roker.
“In Their Own Words” will continue through the fall featuring virtual conversations with prolific thriller and historical fiction author Ken Follett, shoe designer/memoirist Steve Madden, best-selling novelist Jodi Picoult, alternative medicine advocate/author Deepak Chopra, and TV host and author Joan Lunden.
“We can’t wait to welcome our community back to the beautiful 550-seat Gordon Center when it is safe to do so,” says Shalva. “Of course, we will open as soon as we are able, taking all possible precautions so that our patrons can return and enjoy all the incredible, high-quality live music, dance, family programs and films they have come to expect from the Center for Arts and Culture at the J.”
Shalva admits that one benefit of virtual programming is that the possibilities are, well, virtually limitless.
“When we moved into the virtual context, we realized we could reach out to authors and thought leaders who didn’t live in or near Baltimore,” says Shalva.
The Gordon’s new “Wisdom Studio” program, another “Words and Ideas” offering, is a perfect example. The “Wisdom Studio” will present Jewish authors, cultural commentators, educators and thought leaders from all over the world to facilitate conversations about modern art and culture over Zoom.
Similarly, the Gordon Center will offer a new virtual discussion series called “Amplified Voices” that will address topics related to Black-Jewish relations and an “Israel Insights” series in partnership with The Associated: Jewish Federation of Baltimore.
The latter will host scholars, academics and journalists for conversations about issues pertaining to the Jewish state.
Due to the pandemic, the JCC was forced to furlough 350 staff members in May, something Shalva says was “extremely challenging. We had to say goodbye to a lot of people who’ve been part of the family for ages.”
Despite that hardship, says Shalva, the health crisis has reinvigorated the Gordon Center team. “We’ve never done this before, and it’s taken a lot of help to do it. The people I’m working with — Peter Michaelson, Marilyn Zvili, Melissa Seltzer and Sara Qureshi — are top-notch professionals, and I feel very lucky to lead them.
“Now more than ever, people are seeking hope,” Shalva says. “These are dark days, and arts and culture help people escape, find humanity by sharing stories, studying, spiritual experiences. … This time has taught me a lot about how important the work we do is and how much people value it.”
For information, visit gordoncenter.com.