Elise Bernhardt is President and CEO of The Foundation for Jewish Culture.  Elise can be reached at ebernhardt@JewishCulture.org.

Sh’mini Atzeret, coming as it does on the day before Simchat Torah, is the point for me when the year really ends and begins anew. The transition is so physically marked: the unevenness of the Torah scrolls and then the rewind. The year begins in the same place and yet is fundamentally different, the way that by reading the same parsha year after year our understanding changes because we have changed.

The parsha Sh’mini Atzeret starts with a reference to the Shmita year, the one year out of seven of rest and remittance. We put that concept into practice last year around this time at the Foundation for Jewish Culture. Our small endowment was underwater (market conditions) and we had to leave some of our “land” fallow so it could recover while we found other ways to serve our constituents. We organized one conference on New Jewish Music, another with Jewish film festival directors, and evaluated some of our programs including the Lynn and Jules Kroll Fund for Jewish Documentary Film. We found new ways to collaborate with partners such as the Council of American Jewish Museums and have begun exploring new partnerships with cultural institutions in Jerusalem.

On the face of it, the idea of self-sufficiency and independence promised by the text (“You will extend loans to many nations but require none yourself”) is appealing. But the fact that we must all depend on each other—foundations, philanthropists, donors, grantees—is what makes us a community. “For there will never cease to be needy ones in your land,” the text goes on to say, “which is why I command you: open your hand to the poor.” Giving and receiving support connects us to each other.

Through our grants such as the Goldberg Prize for Jewish Fiction by Emerging Writers, the Kroll Fund for Jewish Documentary Film, and the Cohen Fund for Doctoral Dissertation Fellowships, the Foundation for Jewish Culture supports young, determined, talented individuals who want to express their connection to their heritage in new and original ways.

In the current economy, young people may feel the pressure to focus on secure, secular career options. There are at least a few career options more financially stable than pursuing a PhD in Jewish History, or spending years chronicling the three-decade-long international movement to free Soviet Jews, as did Laura Bialis, a 2004 Kroll Fund for Jewish Documentary Film grantee, for Refusenik.

Our grants provide an opportunity for artists and scholars making their way in the world to continue exploring the Jewish experience and produce substantive, quality work. 2007 film grantee Nicole Opper is among our recent success stories: she won the 2009 Writers Guild of America Documentary Screenplay Award and the Outfest 2009 Grand Jury Award for Outstanding Documentary Feature Film for Off and Running. Filmmaker Magazine named her one of the 25 New Faces of Independent Film.

Our grantees have been Israeli and German, French and American, known and unknown, GLBTQ and straight, Orthodox and agnostic, black and white, Sephardi and Ashkenazi, politically conservative and politically radical. A community of passionate individuals, they cover the breadth of the Jewish experience, and we are proud to say that their creations reflect their diversity and enrich us all.

As we close this Shmita year (with bated breath as the market moves up), we consider how much more satisfying a year it has been. We have closer relationships with partners old and new, we have a far better sense of what the cultural landscape requires, and we are clearer as we go forward about the importance of culture to the future of Jewish life.  I’m personally looking forward to rereading the parsha about Bezalel; it so aptly describes the kinds of creators we at the Foundation support – “endowed with skill, ability and knowledge.”

Chazak, Chazak v’Nitchazek …