By Laura Porter
WORCESTER – “Ten years ago, I didn’t even know how to book a film,” says Nancy Greenberg, the director of Cultural Arts and Adult/Senior Adult programming at the Worcester Jewish Community Center.
This month, the Central Mass. Jewish Film Festival she helped to create nine years ago will once again feature films that reflect the global Jewish community’s diversity of place, time and culture.
Each of the six films on the schedule this year has been either an opening film or audience favorite at other film festivals. (See schedule on this page).
As always, Greenberg has curated the films carefully.
“It’s a balancing act,” she says. Every year, she tries to achieve a blend of themes, genres and nationalities. Not all of the films are subtitled. She always includes an Israeli film and often one with a Holocaust theme.
“I try to balance what I think will play in Worcester with what the strong films around the country have been [in a given year.]”
This is Greenberg’s sixteenth year at the Worcester JCC. Raised in Chelmsford, she spent a lot of time in Worcester with her mother’s large extended family. Her JCC career began in Denver after she received her master’s in social work from the University of Michigan.
Though “I hadn’t intended to do Jewish communal work,” she says, after three years in Colorado, she was recruited back to Massachusetts in 1983 when the Leventhal-Sidman JCC in Newton opened. She worked there for ten years, beginning as Youth director and moving next to Grossman Camp, where she was unit head; she then became senior adult director.
Moving to Worcester to raise her two children, Max and Samantha, she left the Newton position and didn’t work for a couple of years. In the late 1990s, however, changes at the Worcester JCC offered “a small way back into JCC work,” she says. She stepped in to run “Man Talk” for men over 65, a weekly breakfast and discussion program that continues to be wildly popular.
At the time, the JCC had just absorbed the Jewish Service Center for Older Adults in Worcester, and the task was to “figure out what the JCC was going to do with the center’s senior programs. We had our programs, too.”
She became director of the senior program, working primarily with Susan Granoff, who has recently retired as Volunteer Services Director.
“The community has changed,” Greenberg reflects. “There wasn’t the Eisenberg [Assisted Living Residence], or the Willows at Worcester [for independent senior living]. Bet Shalom [subsidized senior housing] used to be mainly Jewish; now the percentage is quite a bit lower.”
Now that Granoff has left, things have come full circle and the JCC is once again reevaluating the senior adult program.
“Demographics have shifted,” she says. “We are looking now at how to serve baby boomers as we are aging.”
Greenberg’s work with seniors has run right alongside her expansion of cultural arts at the JCC and, by extension, in Central Massachusetts.
When she became director of cultural arts in 1999, the JCC Gallery, which showcases the work of largely local artists in frequent exhibits, was already up and running and there was some good programming, she says.
Very early, she expressed interest in beginning an author series and brought in Jonathan Sarna, professor of American Jewish History at Brandeis University, as the first author.
Eleven years later, the Worcester JCC Author Series, funded by a grant from the Jewish Federation of Central Massachusetts, is a mainstay on the local calendar, highly anticipated and very well attended.
Thanks to Greenberg’s persistence, the JCC has been a member of the Jewish Book Council for ten years. When she first asked to join, the organization was tiny, “a little fledgling group that had been around for a long time and was very insular,” she says.
“It has grown crazily over the past ten years.”
At the time, the JBC director was not adding members. There were large Jewish book festivals across the country, though primarily in cities.
But Greenberg kept asking until the Worcester JCC was allowed to join.
Every JCC in the country now belongs as well as some synagogues, making up a membership of about 150, she says. Membership gives the groups access to the annual JBC network of authors, a selection of 250 with new books who plan to go on tour through the organization.
To choose which writers to bring to Worcester, Greenberg attends the JBC’s conference in New York City every spring, where writers on the list for the year give short presentations.
“It’s like speed dating,” she says. “Every author on the tour gets to give a two-minute spiel on their book. I hear over 200 authors and get all the books.”
Typically, she approaches authors from New England and perhaps from New York City.
“I have to curate both who is going to come to Worcester as well as who I can get an audience for in Worcester.”
Over the years, she has expanded the author series throughout the Central Mass. community, partnering with different organizations and institutions to broaden both its appeal and its reach. Partners have included Congregation B’nai Shalom in Westborough, the McFarland Center for Religion, Ethics and Culture at the College of the Holy Cross, and the Strassler Family Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies at Clark University, among others.
For example, in 2012, Deborah Dwork, Rose Professor of Holocaust Studies and director of the Strassler Center at Clark, spoke about her book, A Boy in Terezin: The Private Diary of Pavel Weiner, at the JCC instead of at Clark. Last February, another joint venture brought David Kertzer to Holy Cross, where he discussed his book, The Pope and Mussolini: The Secret History of Pius XI and the Rise of Fascism in Europe.
A month later, he received the Pulitzer Prize.
And sometimes, the collaboration runs the other direction. When Holy Cross invited Rabbi Eric Yoffie to speak in the fall of 2014, they asked the Worcester JCC to partner with them. Yoffie grew up in Worcester and in the former Temple Emanuel.
“I got Temple Emanuel Sinai involved,” Greenberg says. “He’s a native son. There was huge attendance – 150 Jews. Holy Cross was thrilled.”
Last fall’s series, highlighting six authors, was based at the JCC but also featured readings at Congregation Beth Israel, Congregation B’nai Shalom, and Temple Emanuel Sinai.
Dovetailing with the author series has been the Jewish Film Festival, started nine years ago by Greenberg, Clark Hillel Director David Coyne, and Joyce Siegel, who was then at the Westborough JCC.
Supported by a grant from JFCM, the trio showed a couple of films that first year in Remillard Hall at St. John’s High School in Shrewsbury. Greenberg had stumbled across the space, which has continued to be the ideal venue for the film festival.
For the past four years, Greenberg has been the sole staff person running the festival. David Coyne soon realized that Clark students were unlikely to travel off campus for films. Siegel and Greenberg ran the series together until Siegel’s focus changed and she moved to Florida.
She has varied the location of the film festival a bit, showing certain films at the Willows as well as at the Worcester Senior Center.
“Our people were moving over to the Willows, and they had a really nice room for showing films with state of the art equipment,” she says.
After a model seder held at the Senior Center last spring, a collaboration between the Senior Center and the JCC’s Senior Adult Department with Rabbi Valerie Cohen of Temple Emanuel Sinai presiding, it made sense to continue the partnership.
To choose films, Greenberg looks to the big film festivals. She always checks the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival’s opening, closing and centerpiece films, and she is particularly interested in films listed as audience favorites.
“I contact the distributors and get online screeners,” she says. “In October, November and December, I’ll sit in my office and watch a lot of movies.”
The ultimate decision depends on “what will play in Worcester and what I can afford,” she says. “A Tale of Love and Darkness,” a new movie starring Natalie Portman based on the memoirs of Amos Oz, is too expensive. Hungary’s “Son of Saul,” the Golden Globe winner for foreign language film, is “too dark. It’s probably one of the most important films of the year but it might be a hard sell for me.”
It’s a process that involves research and, happily, watching a lot of movies.
“That’s a secret benefit,” she laughs.
Tickets for the Central Mass. Film Festival can be purchased online at www.worcesterjcc.org, at the Worcester JCC at 633 Salisbury St. or at the door (if available). For more information, contact Nancy Greenberg at email@example.com or (508) 756-7109, ext. 232.