S.F. federation reaches out to community on the Web

Their 16-year-old son was half a world away in Israel on a six-week trip for teens. He phoned home only once and sent his parents only one e-mail.

Yet Janice Shapiro and Dennis Biroscak of San Francisco were able to keep tabs on their son's daily activities.

The Web site of the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation was their link.

"My husband and I logged on together every single day," Shapiro said. "Looking at the pictures and reading the diaries, we felt like we were almost in real time with the kids."

Located at www.sfjcf.org, the relatively new Web site is making a lot of new things possible.

In addition to providing updates on the recently concluded Diller Teen Fellows trip to Israel — through journal entries from the students and lots of pictures — the Web site is taking JCF into the electronic age.

Six months ago, for example, when JCF staged its mega-fund-raiser Super Sunday, several thousand dollars in donations came in over the Internet.

And at the beginning of September, a link on the Web site will feature a listing of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur services in the JCF's service area of San Francisco, the Peninsula, Marin and Sonoma Counties.

"Our Seder Central site last spring was a big hit," said Suzan Berns, the director of marketing for JCF. "It brought a lot of people to our site, so we decided to keep it going with a Holiday Central site."

It will be reachable through the lime-and-orange-sherbet-colored JCF home page or at www.jholidays.org.

The JCF Web site was launched on Oct. 1, thanks in large part to the volunteer efforts of Sue Hutner of Wang-Hutner Design and current Young Adults Division President Larry Kluger.

A Webmaster, 31-year-old Katherine Falk of Oakland, was hired in December and has been working feverishly on upgrades and expansions.

"There are just so many ideas and so many things I want to add to the site," Falk said. "Sometimes it's hard to just focus on a few things."

A recent $93,600 grant from the Jewish Community Endowment Fund is going toward making the site better. It will help pay the salaries of people who work on the site, as well as be put toward upgrades, marketing and hiring outside specialists.

"We're currently redesigning the home page to offer more access to other things," Berns said.

Not that the site doesn't already offer a lot of access. There are links to JCF service agencies, such the Israel Center, the Young Adults Division and the New Bridges Program. There are pictures of recent JCF activities.

There are also calendar listings of JCF events and guidance for finding whatever kind of Jewish community information one is looking for — such as getting connected to different religious and cultural groups, or finding volunteer opportunities.

Users can also see information on JCF's fund-raising campaigns, download a grant application form or sign up for an event. Searching the site is also available.

"We're getting around 150 to 200 hits a day, but it fluctuates a lot," Falk said. "Every time there's a major event, like Israel Independence Day, we see a rise in the numbers."

One of JCF's most ambitious Web endeavors occurred in February on Super Sunday. A special site featured Webcam photos of volunteers that changed every 10 seconds or so. Plus, people could watch the total on the tote board rise, and make donations via credit card. One donation even came in from Israel.

"It worked out pretty well, but it was only our first try," Falk said. "It generated a lot of interest. Volunteers were telling their friends and family to look for them on the site."

Next year, instead of using a Web camera, JCF might try a Webcast, with pictures that change every second to create more of a moving image. But that kind of technology costs thousands of dollars, so it's still up in the air.

Perhaps the most popular attraction on the JCF site has been the Diller Teen Fellows pages, where many parents and friends of the traveling teens checked out the group's adventures.

Just about every day, there were postings of new photos and journal entries from various travelers on the trip, a joint project of the S.F.-based Bureau of Jewish Education and the JCF's Israel Center.

For Janice Shapiro, "It was a perfect way of reassuring us and keeping us informed" of the daily activities of her son Jesse and his fellow travelers, she said. "I felt like we were there."

Andy Altman-Ohr

Andy Altman-Ohr was J.’s managing editor and Hardly Strictly Bagels columnist until he retired in 2016 to travel and live abroad. He and his wife have a home base in Mexico, where he continues his dalliance with Jewish journalism.