Beginning this year, the National Foundation for Jewish Culture (NFJC), in conjunction with Brandeis University's Maurice and Marilyn Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies and its S.F.-based Institute for Community & Religion, is embarking on an unprecedented study of Jewish culture in America. The multiyear project will make specific recommendations on how the arts and humanities can enrich Jewish life at a time of shrinking budgets and growing communal needs.
"In San Francisco, we are looking at people who are attending the Jewish Film Festival, or who fill a huge synagogue to hear a klezmer concert," said Anita Wornick, a NFJC board member who is active in many local secular and Jewish organizations. "But who are these people — and how do we get the community to connect to them?"
The conference "Writing the Jewish Future: A Global Conversation," which is expected to draw thousands of people for a full three days and four nights of events, will also provide data on what draws Jews to Jewish cultural events but not to other kinds of Jewish activities.
Coordinated by Gary Tobin, who heads both the Cohen Center and the Institute for Community & Religion, the study will utilize resources at Brandeis University and the NFJC. It will also flesh out one of the most interesting findings of the landmark 1990 National Jewish Population Study: that more Jews identify with Judaism through Jewish culture than through religion, ethnicity or nationality.
The research will cover Jewish cultural activity nationwide but focus more heavily on the Bay Area and a few other communities. It is expected to provide an inventory of the Jewish cultural enterprise in America.
It will also define what is meant by "Jewish culture," based on surveys and interviews with creators, presenters, patrons and the public.
The results will aid Jewish community leaders and cultural presenters in planning, creating and evaluating programs to stimulate American Jewish culture and strengthen identity. It will also provide a model for community-based Jewish cultural councils.
The study is currently under way in two communities, San Francisco and Philadelphia, with a special research effort focused on the Jewish Museum San Francisco. Scholars are also looking at who attends cultural events such as Jewish Film Festival and A Traveling Jewish Theatre presentations, as well as programs at the museum.
"We believe this will be a landmark study," said Tobin, who has completed numerous studies on the Jewish community, both locally and nationally. "Although some communities have already begun looking at culture in terms of community building, we hope this study will really jump-start the process."