Jewish video collection aids nationwide education push

While searching for books on genealogy at the S.F.-based Bureau of Jewish Education's Jewish Community Library, David Sandler became sidetracked by a collection of videos he had never seen.

"I was looking up Jewish surnames from the Russian Empire when the cabinet of videos caught my eye," said Sandler, an attorney with the legal division of the city's department of transportation.

Including both the 1927 Al Jolson classic "The Jazz Singer" and Woody Allen's 1990 film "Crimes And Misdemeanors," the Jewish Heritage Video Collection comprises 200 features and documentaries covering a wide range of Jewish subjects.

Some of these films are not even available currently in video rental stores.

Jewish community libraries and other institutions nationwide now house the collection, which was recently purchased for the BJE with a $12,500 grant from the Bernard Osher Jewish Philanthropies Foundation.

A supporting foundation of the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation's Endowment Fund, the Osher Foundation helps fund a variety of Bay Area cultural, educational and social service organizations.

With the purchase, the BJE became one of 27 venues in the country — and the first in Northern California — to acquire the exclusive collection. It is part of a major effort in American Jewish education to use film, television and other technologies to illuminate Jewish heritage and civilization.

Explaining why he awarded the grant, Bernard Osher said he has always taken an interest in film, especially films that depict Jewish life in Europe.

Born and raised in Maine in an observant home where Yiddish was spoken, Osher said he witnessed "a segment of Jewish life that the modern Jew may be completely unaware of, but which can still be relived on screen."

On the East Coast, Osher said, parents and grandparents commonly discuss with youngsters their forebears' experiences. But in the Bay Area, he said, "we tend to forget."

When David Sandler saw that the collection included the 1975 film "Hester Street" — which portrays newly arrived Jews struggling to assimilate in turn-of-the-century New York — he thought about his own grandparents' emigration from the Ukraine.

Brad Lakritz, technology coordinator at the BJE, which can be reached at (415) 751-6983, extension 106, said the collection also includes silent films, foreign films, children's programs and Yiddish classics.

Venues acquiring the video library also receive original course curricula showing how to use the films as learning tools. Lakritz said this material can help instructors create courses and can indicate which films are most appropriate for the course topic at hand.

For example, a class on Jewish identity might include "The Chosen"; a course on anti-Semitism would include "Gentlemen's Agreement."

The collection contains some rare television programs, including conversations between Edward R. Murrow and David Ben-Gurion, reflections on the Six Day War with Golda Meir and Moshe Dayan and Anwar Sadat's historic visit to Jerusalem.

Lehrhaus Judaica instructor Yossi Offenberg couldn't be more thrilled. Offenberg, who teaches Jewish film and has lectured at Bay Area film festivals, said the demand for many Jewish films typically has not been high enough for video stores to carry them.

"This collection will be a tremendous help in obtaining such videos," he said.

Kerin Lieberman, associate director at the BJE, said the videos may be rented for a minimal fee for home use and at no charge to BJE-affiliated schools in the regions the federation serves. (Individuals and Jewish organizations outside the federation area must pay a higher user fee.)

But while paying constituents make up about 40 percent of the BJE's overall annual video circulation, Lieberman said, "We are not trying to go into competition with Blockbuster." The collection was "created with one goal in mind: to help American Jews rediscover their heritage."

Lakritz agreed, noting that three-quarters of American families now own VCRs.

"Film is one of the most powerful tools we can use to reach Jews today," he said.