Is culture the key to community

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Rabbi Brian Lurie, hired last week as new head of the Jewish Museum San Francisco, asserts that Jewish culture may be the key to leading the stray sheep back to the flock.

The Bay Area, in particular, has more sheep than most regions. Synagogue affiliation, believed to hover around 30 percent of the Jewish population, speaks to the lack of community involvement.

Lurie, in fact, calls the Bay Area "one of the most assimilated Jewish communities in the world." Culture, he notes, "can be one of the cornerstones of the Jewish community in the 21st century."

Is he right? Can Jewish culture entice Jews to return to tradition? Or is this just another attempt to try to make Jews more Jewish without pushing observance and worship?

We'll certainly find out.

Another cultural icon of the Bay Area, the Jewish Film Festival, does bring out thousands and thousands of Jews every summer.

Jews who haven't seen the inside of a synagogue in years will sit in a theater and tap their hand to a klezmer beat, think about Israeli politics or laugh at comedian Eddie Cantor.

Their flocking to this well-regarded film fest, however, doesn't mean they'll incorporate more Judaism into their lives during the rest of the year.

Traditionally, museums have functioned along the same lines.

Most individuals visit museums a few times a year to get a dose of culture. They come; they admire; they leave.

But Lurie, long hailed as an innovator in the Jewish community, hopes to expand the concept and influence of his museum.

He acknowledges the new museum site, adjacent to Yerba Buena Gardens and in the heart of the city's new cultural hub, probably will attract individuals just a few times a year.

Instead, he wants to try a different approach and use the museum site as a base to reach Jews spread widely — through the region.

Lurie already is hoping to broadcast interactive, live events from the museum to synagogues and community centers across Northern California. He wants to use cable television and the Internet to reach Jewish homes regularly.

Obviously, few other tactics have worked to rouse observance levels in Bay Area Jews. Lurie may be on to something here. Not only will affiliated Bay Area Jews be watching, much of the rest of the country will be too.