South Peninsula survey aims to plug into disconnected Jews

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As thousands of Stanford-area Jews open their prayerbooks during High Holy Days services this year, they are encountering more than just liturgy and meditations.

Tucked inside the prayerbooks are short surveys designed to dip into the psyche of some 4,000 South Peninsula Jews who show up each year at Stanford Hillel's Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur services — and who purportedly take part in little else offered by the organized Jewish community.

"We want a clearer understanding of their concerns or needs," said Linda Kurz, head of the Jewish Community Building Network, which is sponsoring the survey.

Kurz hopes the survey will uncover why these Jews aren't plugging into established arenas of activity, such as synagogues or the Albert L. Schultz Jewish Community Center in Palo Alto.

"Do they want to be more involved?" mused Kurz, who is a member of Congregation Beth Am in Los Altos Hills. "I know people who move here and just don't know how to connect."

Depending on the survey's results, Kurz said, the group might try to organize a South Peninsula newsletter or offer an introductory "passport" that would allow unaffiliated Jews to try out area synagogues and activities at a discount. Organizers believe the survey may be the first of its kind in the South Peninsula.

The 11-question survey asks respondents what other Jewish events they've attended in the past year, whether Jewish offerings meet their needs, and how they would rank the importance of linking up to the Jewish community.

For Kurz, however, one of the most important questions asks people to rank what it would take for them to become more involved in the Jewish community. The six choices include if "belonging was not so expensive" or if "it was more accessible and friendly."

Jewish leaders generally assume that cost keeps "marginally affiliated" Jews away, she said. But Kurz believes it might have more to do with how Jewish organizations act toward newcomers.

"Organizations haven't opened their doors wide enough and made people welcome," she said.

Because the group wanted to ensure as many responses as possible, it kept the questionnaire to one page and asked general questions.

"The survey is just to give us better insights into community needs," said Ric Rudman, a member of the community network group and ALSJCC president.

Hoping to dig deeper, the survey also asked people to volunteer if they want to participate in a focus group on Jewish involvement.

The survey's cost, a few hundred dollars for printing, was covered by the community development fund of the Jewish Community Federation's South Peninsula region.

The group chose Stanford Hillel's High Holy Days services to distribute the survey because the majority of the participants aren't college students. They're South Peninsula Jews in their mid-20s and older, who return each year, according to Kurz. It's a "community institution."

Added Rudman, "It's a very easy opportunity to collect a lot of information."

However, not all Stanford Hillel service-goers fit the mold of marginally affiliated. Kurz serves on Congregation Beth Am's religious school committee and is former president of the Mid-Peninsula Jewish Community Day School. Kurz and her family, who live in Stanford, take part in Hillel's services to stay connected to the university community.

The Jewish Community Building Network, which consists of six lay leaders from South Peninsula day schools, synagogues, the JCC and the federation, grew out of a Jewish leadership retreat that took place last year.

One issue raised there centered around the belief that affiliating with Jewish institutions can be intimidating and expensive.

"We asked, `So what are we going to do about it?'" Kurz said. "We didn't just want to drop it."