“Our biggest challenge is just getting more knowledge out there about the fact that this exists,” says Ilya Tovbis, JxJ’s artistic and managing director. “If I just walked outside and said to people, ‘Hey, do you know there’s a cinema within a block of here?’ I think 98 out of 100 people would say no. And that’s really our challenge.”
Within the DCJCC building, which sits off 16th Street NW between Dupont Circle and Logan Circle, Cafritz Hall typically presents films for limited runs of one to two weeks, with a focus on contemporary indie cinema. Many of the selections are foreign films getting their first theatrical run in the United States. Other movies are more accessible: the buzzy Adam Sandler drama “Uncut Gems,” for example, played at Cafritz Hall during the holiday season.
The venue’s lineup also is peppered with special events, including cinema retrospectives, movie discussion groups, filmmaker Q&As and advance screenings of films that haven’t opened yet. These sneak previews have featured both on-theme programming, such as the World War II films “Jojo Rabbit” and “A Hidden Life,” and movies with no Jewish or Israeli tie, including the Judy Garland biopic “Judy.”
“A lot people called to say, ‘Wait, is Judy Garland Jewish? I didn’t realize,’ ” Tovbis says. “In this case, no, it’s not [a Jewish film]. And we’re not trying to make some case there. While [our audience] primarily is looking at Jewish or Israeli films, they’re also very much interested in just good, smart, art-house fare.”
Cafritz Hall will be a key location for JxJ 2020, a three-week festival in May that will encompass two long-running traditions: the Washington Jewish Film Festival and Washington Jewish Music Festival. The DCJCC’s Goldman Theater, which hosts productions by the stage company Theater J, will be temporarily converted into another cinema space, cementing the community center as a central hub for JxJ 2020.
Although the film festival’s demographics skew toward Jewish audience members older than 40, according to Tovbis, research has shown improvement in recent years when it comes reaching younger, more diverse audiences. Going forward, JxJ aims to further diversify the attendees of the film festival and Cafritz Hall’s year-round programming.
“While we’re a Jewish community center, we’re not a community center for Jewish people. We’re of Jewish values and ethos and beliefs very strongly, but we’re for the community at large,” Tovbis says. “To be perfectly honest, we’re not there. I think we have made some good steps, especially with age, and we have seen some diversification in terms of ethnicity and race, as well. But we definitely have some way to go there.”
When Cafritz Hall isn’t being used for film screenings, the space’s retractable seating provides flexibility to host other events, such as concerts, lectures — even blood drives. But the venue’s focus, first and foremost, is to provide a new sanctuary for D.C. cinephiles.
“We don’t function exactly like E Street [Cinema] or Bethesda Row or AMC Georgetown,” Tovbis says. “But just about any night, you can come here and watch a movie. In that way we are an art-house cinema, and that’s really how we see ourselves.”
Edlavitch DC Jewish Community Center. 1529 16th St. NW. 202-777-3210. jxjdc.org.