Poet Jake Marmer (right) recites his poetry at LABA's DRUNK event at the JCC East Bay in Berkeley, Nov. 23, 2019, accompanied by guitarist John Schott. (Photo/Pete Rosos)
Poet Jake Marmer (right) recites his poetry at LABA's DRUNK event at the JCC East Bay in Berkeley, Nov. 23, 2019, accompanied by guitarist John Schott. (Photo/Pete Rosos)

Jewish culture laboratory LABA gets a new home at the Firehouse in S.F.

Sign up for Weekday J and get the latest on what's happening in the Jewish Bay Area.

LABA East Bay, the Jewish culture “laboratory” that supports local artists through its annual fellowship program and hosts live showcases, is now LABA Bay.

As part of an expansion, the local hub of the international LABA network has changed its name and moved its headquarters from the Jewish Community Center of the East Bay to the Firehouse in San Francisco. Philanthropist and author Anne Germanacos, who funded LABA East Bay since its 2019 founding, will take a more active role at the organization. Germanacos owns the Firehouse, a converted automotive repair shop in the S.F. neighborhood of Cole Valley that serves as a Jewish communal gathering space, among other uses. The building will host inaugural LABA Bay events for fellows, alumni and friends Nov. 13-14.

“The JCC East Bay was a wonderful home for LABA, and it allowed us to test the model out here and incubate it,” said Elissa Strauss, LABA Bay’s artistic director. “I feel like we brought a lot of life and culture to the [JCC] building through LABA, and then there was this sense that it could serve a bigger need across the Bay.”

Ava Sayaka Rosen's tarot cards on display at the LABAlive event, Nov. 7, 2021.
Ava Sayaka Rosen’s tarot cards on display at the LABAlive event, Nov. 7, 2021.

Strauss said she and Germanacos plan to hold more public salons at the Firehouse and partner with more Jewish institutions on events featuring LABA fellows and alumni. “I now have all these people that I want to share with the community at large,” she said. Alumni include singer Rabbi Jessica Kate Meyer, the members of the musical ensemble San Francisco Yiddish Combo, actress and juggler Sara Felder, dancer Marika Brussel, poet Jake Marmer and visual artists Ava Sakaya Rosen and Naomie Kremer. (Organizations that wish to partner with LABA should contact Strauss.)

About Germanacos, Strauss added, “I feel very aligned with her intellectually, spiritually and creatively, and I’m so pleased not only to work alongside her but also to learn from her.”

In an interview, Germanacos told J. she was drawn to LABA because it is an innovative and nonreligious program that prioritizes artistic freedom. “It’s offering the possibilities inherent in Judaism and particularly through Jewish text to people who already have found their way in the world — and I don’t mean their way practically speaking, but spiritually speaking — through the imagination and through their art, whatever it is,” she said.

It’s a pretty special space, and people tend to feel special while they’re there.

The Firehouse, which Germanacos bought in 2016, is an ideal place for LABA fellows to gather, she noted. “Whereas the JCC they shared with a lot of other people, this is theirs while they’re there,” she said. “And it’s a pretty special space, and people tend to feel special while they’re there.” (The Firehouse is a different building from the events space of the same name at Fort Mason Center for Arts & Culture.)

Germanacos, 64, started her Germanacos Foundation in 2009 with money she inherited from her stepfather, wealth manager Claude Rosenberg, and mother, Louise. Through the foundation, Germanacos funds a wide range of local and international Jewish organizations — including San Francisco-based Jewish LearningWorks and Berkeley-based Jewish Voice for Peace and Jewish Studio Project — as well as non-Jewish ones. She is also a funder and member of The Kitchen, an independent Jewish congregation that regularly gathers for Shabbat morning services at the Firehouse.

Asked why she feels called to support the arts, and specifically LABA, she spoke about how she has moved back and forth at different points in her life between her identity as a Jew and her identity as a writer (she has published several books of stories, poetry and images). “At this point, having lived within a kind of organized religious situation [at the Kitchen] for 10 years, I’m kind of ready to go — it’s not exactly back, but forward into the artistic again, and bring other people as well along, and so LABA is perfect,” she said.

The crowd at a Kitchen event at the Firehouse.
The crowd at a Kitchen event at the Firehouse in 2020.

Each year, LABA assembles a cohort of up to 10 local Jewish culture-makers — musicians, dancers, actors, visual artists, writers and others — to study excerpts from Torah, Talmud and other Jewish texts on a specific theme and then create new works around the theme. Applications are currently being accepted for the 2022-2023 fellowship, which comes with a $1,000 stipend. The theme is “taboo,” and the deadline to apply is Nov. 18.

A traveling exhibition of visual art created by LABA fellows titled “Comment!” is currently on view at the Osher Marin Jewish Community Center in San Rafael through Jan. 4. After that, it will move to the Peninsula Jewish Community Center in Foster City.

Other LABA hubs are located in New York, Buenos Aires and Berlin, with pop-ups being planned in Los Angeles and London. Each hub fundraises independently and receives some financial support from parent organization Educational Alliance.

Andrew Esensten
Andrew Esensten

Andrew Esensten is the culture editor of J. Previously, he was a staff writer for the English-language edition of Haaretz based in Tel Aviv. Follow him on Twitter @esensten.