The foyer of the national theater is filled with men and women, Israelis and foreigners - all younger than the typical Israeli theater crowd, and all seem excited for the evening to begin.
Tel Aviv's Habima Theater does attract younger audiences, but seldom at such numbers and with such excitement. Other Israeli art institutions seem to accept uniformly older audiences as a norm. They too are visited these days by the year-old organization Young Friends of the Arts, the organization that in September combined Habima's "The Merchant of Venice" by Shakespeare with a backstage tour and a lively cocktail party.
Young Friends of the Arts is the brainchild of 39-year-old Australia-born Jacob Bryce. In 2009 Bryce had just closed a circle. A decade previously he came to Israel, where he stayed for three years. He then left to the United States, completed an MBA, and spent a few more years in France before returning to Israel, drawn by a longing and a sense of purpose.
"I love the classical arts," Bryce explains, following the event at a Tel Aviv cafe. "And so after I [immigrated to Israel] I went as a spectator to the theaters, the philharmonic, the dance companies and the museums. In all of them I found a fine quality of art and an audience of almost all pensioners."
Bryce asked himself what keeps the young away from Israel's concert halls and other cultural institutions, and found three possible reasons: "One, they don't understand the arts; two, everyone else is old; and three, it's expensive. I thought of the idea of mid-career people going together, receiving a discount, and most importantly receiving an experience that would connect them to the arts by explaining the particular art form and production, a meeting with the artists."
"I have also noticed that in Israel, after school, army and university, once your career begins, the only people you meet are those who come to your profession. We don't have mid-career forums," he notes.
This is where Bryce's background as a Diaspora Jew becomes relevant to his creation. In Australia, it was this factor - beyond his professional identity as a lawyer - that brought him in touch with others, in the Jewish community's various forums.
Young Friends of the Arts was established in November 2011. The following month, a first event was held: a night at the opera, featuring the Israeli Opera's production of Mascagni's "Cavalleria Rusticana e Pagliacci." The Opera, often criticized for failing to attract younger audiences, was extremely supportive, providing the initiative with a first gust of fair wind. Seven other events have been held since, including a visit to the Rubin Museum, the museum dedicated to the works of Israeli artist Reuven Rubin, and the Cameri Theater's production of the musical "Cabaret."
Bryce's initiative demands definition of the term "mid-career." Though he was originally thinking of 32- to 45-year-olds, the project officially addresses individuals aged 25-49, in order to accommodate a wider public. Among the 200 or so participants who attended "The Merchant of Venice" in September, about 45 percent were native-born Israelis, 45 percent were immigrants, and 10 percent were diplomats, according to Bryce.
Bryce cooperates with the alumni associations of various schools in Israel and abroad to reach his target public. "We try to target more educated people because they are more likely to be interested," he explains, "but there's no intended bias and everyone is welcome to join."
Indeed, Bryce does not regard the disconnect between young audiences and the arts in Israel as a class issue, but as one that spans all classes. "It's not only that the audience tends to be older," he says. "It's that in Israel there's almost no young audience to the arts. It would disturb me if this aspect of our lives, the arts, would disappear. We are trying to rectify this."