Although we share the same last name, we are not related – but we do share a passion for Israel and for the Jewish community, and between us, we represent decades of involvement as volunteer lay leaders of local, national and international Jewish organizations.
Judy is a member of the Theater J Council, a past president of Adat Shalom Congregation, and a leader in organizations such as Ameinu, New Israel Fund and J Street. Susie – a past president of the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington and a member of WJW’s ownership group – led the Federation board in deliberations that resulted in an emphatic rejection of the demand by some in our community to impose funding guidelines based on programmatic content, as a result of Theater J’s Return to Haifa controversy in 2011. More recently, Susie wrote an op-ed for this paper defending Theater J’s presentation of The Admission (“The Play’s the Thing – or Is It?” WJW, October 2013) and advocating for the right of the Washington DC Jewish Community Center to present controversial works of theater.
We are both deeply distressed by the ongoing controversy in our community over the recent dismissal of Ari Roth as artistic director of Theater J and the swirl of disinformation and accusations being aimed, once again, at the DCJCC, Theater J’s parent organization.
Typically, in personnel matters, the aggrieved employee has far more freedom to tell his or her side of the story and to gain a sympathetic ear in the court of public opinion. That is also the case here.
To set the record straight, Ari Roth was not fired in order to curb artistic freedom or as a result of undue influence by donors, as some have alleged. In fact, during his 18 years as artistic director of Theater J, the DCJCC’s lay and professional leadership stood by him and his artistic choices, resisting significant pressure from some elements in the community in the process.
But Roth’s behavior over a period of years increasingly put him at odds with the lay and professional leadership of the DCJCC and even his own staff. Despite numerous attempts undertaken by the DCJCC to quietly resolve differences of vision and mission, including the engagement of a prominent local rabbi to mediate, matters eventually reached the breaking point.
Ari Roth’s intention to depart at the end of Theater J’s current season was no
secret. While he was making plans to create a new, independent theatrical entity and was reaching out to Theater J Council members and staff to invite their ideas and their support for his new venture, he continued to lambaste his employer, the DCJCC, in the media. Claims that the DCJCC fired Roth because of “artistic censorship” are absolutely and patently false. Rather, the DCJCC could not tolerate the oppositional behavior of a senior staff member any longer.
The continued, unjustified attacks on the DCJCC are harmful to that venerable institution, one of the jewels in the crown of the Greater Washington Jewish community. The current attacks being carried out in the name of “freedom of expression” are just as invalid as previous calls to stop funding the DCJCC and the Federation (which allocates funds annually to the DCJCC, along with a myriad of other local agencies and day schools) to protest certain controversial productions such as The Admission. Such efforts can only tear at the fabric of our very diverse local community; they inure to no one’s benefit.
Art should serve to create bridges of understanding and empathy between people and communities, not generate obstacles to greater tolerance of divergent viewpoints. The DCJCC leadership is committed to continuing to tackle challenging issues at Theater J, including those that revolve around Israel and the Middle East. Israeli culture will continue to thrive at the DCJCC in theater, film, music and the visual arts.
We call on everyone involved to cease and desist from divisive behaviors that can only cause further harm.
We hope that Ari and his supporters will devote their considerable energies to developing his new enterprise, and we wish him luck. The Greater Washington region can always benefit from new theater companies that will enrich D.C.’s cultural landscape.
We count on Theater J to continue to present cutting-edge, thought-provoking and yes, occasionally controversial, works, in the best tradition that theater has to offer, and we look forward to enjoying many more years of first-class drama at Theater J and the thoughtful debate and communal conversations generated by what is presented on stage, not by what takes place behind the scenes.