Jewish cinema as outreach to unaffiliated

We may never agree on “who is a Jew?” or even on how many Americans are Jewish (estimated at between 5 and 6 million). But we can agree that the largest “movement” of U.S. Jewry is the unaffiliated, many of whom consider themselves “cultural” Jews.

The billion-dollar question is how to bring this group into the fold. So, one Bay Area institution that particularly deserves kudos for reconnecting the unaffiliated to the larger Jewish world is the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival.

Founded in 1980 by Deborah Kaufman and directed in recent years by Janis Plotkin, the local festival has spawned more than 60 such events throughout the United States, a half dozen in Canada and another two dozen or so throughout the world. Last year, the S.F. festival, which continues to be the world’s largest, drew 34,700 people, who watched nearly 50 films in four Bay Area regions.

“We spend a lot of time marketing the festival to the unaffiliated,” says Plotkin, adding that large number of the names on the mailing list are “non-institutional Jews.”

A new report by the Jewish Outreach Institute in New York, detailed in a front-page story this week, validates the work of the local festival, emphasizing that such events have great potential to reach the “unaffiliated or disengaged.” The study — titled “Can Watching a Movie Lead to Greater Jewish Affiliation?” — says such festivals can be an important first step.

The report suggests “next steps,” including information tables and panel discussions as well as tie-ins with other Jewish organizations, which the local film festival is already doing.

Combined with such events as Israel days, street fairs and music festivals, these film festivals demonstrate that cultural Jews are not simply of the “bagels and lox” stripe. They are interested in Jewish activities. They are interested in the Jewish world. And they want to learn.

We applaud the work of Kaufman and of Plotkin, who like her predecessor will be moving on to other ventures. And we wish the best to Don Adams, the new executive director of the local film festival. These festivals are not simply “good for the Jews.” They’re good for the larger community.

J. Editorial Board

The J. Editorial Board pens editorials as the voice of J.