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Interview with Elana MacGilpin of the Mandell JCC Jewish Book Fest

Today we have for you an interview with Elana MacGilpin, one of the organizers of the Mandell JCC Jewish Book Fest, an event made up of several book events,  that takes place every year in Hartford, CT.

1.Tell us a little about the Mandell JCC. How many members do you have? What other kinds of activities do you sponsor?

The Mandell JCC is a community of people of all ages, stages and beliefs who share laughter, learning, listening, and leading.  Members are part of a "neighborhood" where minds grow more active, bodies grow stronger, and friendships grow exponentially. On the main campus in West Hartford, CT you will find a range of fitness, recreation, education and cultural
facilities including a new fitness center, a cultural center, a preschool, an aquatics center, a theater, a family room, an art gallery, a lecture hall and a physical therapy center.  Off campus, the Mandell JCC includes two seasonal recreation/educational facilities - a waterfront summer camp in the woods and a suburban swim and tennis club - and two satellite preschools.   The Mandell JCC is a Jewish community open to everyone regardless of faith, who value caring for and sharing with each other.  It is a place that is warm and inclusive and we have 2720 membership units or about 7200 members.
2. Tell me a little bit about the Mandell JCC's Jewish Book Festival.
When is it held? What kind of speakers or authors did you have? How many
people attended?

The Mandell JCC Jewish Book Festival is a year-round series of four Signature Events that usually take place in November, January, March and May.  We also sponsor a program called Authors on the Road where we partner with synagogues, Jewish agencies and schools to host authors outside of the JCC - this is year round as well and add about 8-10 events per year.  We switched to this format in the 2007-2008 series and have hosted Carl Bernstein, Jodi Picoult, Dennis Ross, Martin Fletcher, Jennifer Weiner, Michael Chabon, to name a few.  We host authors who are Jewish or who aren't Jewish themselves but write on a Jewish topic.  The celebrity/marquee authors that we have featured has really heightened the profile of the Festival and we have welcomed over 2000 participants a year.
3. I noticed on your website that rather than having one continuous
event, for a week let's say, the Mandell JCC breaks it up over several
months. Why? What advantages does this approach present?


[caption id="attachment_161" align="alignleft" width="200" caption="Author Jennifer Weiner"][/caption]

We worked with the traditional Festival model for 14 years and decided that in order to give it some fresh ideas and a fresh perspective having four major events throughout the year with authors who are household names would accomplish this.  It gives us the opportunity to provide something for everyone on a schedule that fits better for our audience members who lead busy lives.  With the traditional model if you happen to be on vacation for that week, or have other family or work commitments, you lose the opportunity to participate - with the year round model if you miss one event, you can still be present for the rest.  We sell tickets to individual events as well as for the series.
4. What were the highlights from the

[caption id="attachment_160" align="alignright" width="240" caption="Author Mitch Albom"][/caption]

2009-2010 season? What was your most well-attended event? What kinds of feedback do you get from the community?


Our kick off event featured NY Times Bestselling Author Alice Hoffman in  conversation with RJ Julia Owner and West Hartford native Roxanne Coady.

Our festival established a new partnership with RJ Julia this year and are so thrilled to be working with them.  Our most well attended event of the year happened on November 5 with Mitch Albom. His newest book, Have A Little Faith, was #1 on the New York Times Bestseller list when he spoke in West Hartford which was such a thrill - we had 650 people in the JCC that night and had to move the event from our theater which seats 400 to our gymnasium!  In January we hosted Rabbi Joseph Telushkin whose new book - The Code of Jewish Ethics: Love Your Neighbor as Yourself - was presented. This event happened on the heels of the devastation in Haiti and the theme of Rabbi Telushkin's talk really resonated with participants. Our final event was on April 13 with Oprah favorite Chris Bohjalian. His book Skeletons at the Feast is based on a real life diary about a young woman in Germany at the end of World War II and pulled in characters who were fighting for their lives during the Holocaust.  This event was held just after Yom Hashoah so it was very meaningful.


[caption id="attachment_163" align="aligncenter" width="451" caption="Rabbi Telushkin with festival organizers"] [/caption]

5. How is the festival supported? Who organizes it? Does the Festival
have paid staff and/or volunteers?



The Festival is supported by corporate and community sponsors who have been very generous over the years.  The Mandell JCC is the overall organizing body and I serve as the Director.  I work with an outstanding volunteer committee comprised of JCC members and community members who are passionate about literature and Jewish culture.  This amazing team spends countless hours throughout the year, working on every details to ensure that our participants have an enlightening experience with our featured authors.


[caption id="attachment_165" align="aligncenter" width="451" caption="Festival organizers schmooze with author Michael Chabon."] [/caption]




6. What do you have coming up for the 2010-2011 season?



We are in the planning stages for the 2010-2011 season so we don't haveanything to announce just yet.  Myself and three members of our steering committee are attending the Jewish Book Council conference in New York City where we will hear from over 200 authors.  We have our wish list as well and will announce our season mid-summer.  We will also be launching a new book club initiative with an event in October where Roxanne Coady from RJ Julia will come talk to book club members, give them tips on how to run a successful book club, talk about her favorite book club picks and will give the participants an opportunity to shop for books as well. It is going to be our 18th season so we will surely be planning something special.

7. What tips or do's and don't's would you offer to JCCs or small organizations looking to put on their own book festival?



In my experience, working with a volunteer committee who is as committed and dedicated as the staff is so important.  Authors come and go but engaging your members and the community can lead to years of success. Certainly knowing your community is also key - like if your community only likes household names or has interests in specific themes.  Being a member of the Jewish Book Council is also a great way to expand your access to and repertoire of Jewish literature and authors as well make connections to staff at JCCs and organizations who run their own Jewish Book Festivals.  Their website is www.jewishbookcouncil.org.




[caption id="attachment_182" align="aligncenter" width="601" caption="The Committee"][/caption]


Elana, thank you so much for taking the time to talk to AJL and share your successes. Mazel tov and best of luck for the future! I hope you keep us posted about your activities!



If you have an event you'd like to see covered on the blog, email me at mcloutier at jewishlibraries.org and we'll talk about how to make that happen!
Posted in: Events, Interview

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