Invest in cultural Jews, dont belittle them, Tobin says

The criteria could use a little updating, according to pollster Gary Tobin, director of the Institute for Jewish & Community Research in San Francisco.

The traditional yardsticks — synagogue affiliation, Jewish philanthropic involvement and a commitment to Israel — should be augmented by other measures.

Such as reading "The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay."

Some might consider Michael Chabon's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, which details the efforts of two Jewish cousins to start a comic-book empire, a poor substitute for Talmud study or Jewish youth groups. However Tobin says many area Jews who rarely set foot in a synagogue are seeking their identity through more culture-oriented outlets, such as Chabon's book.

And while that doesn't exactly come as a shock, considering the eclectic nature of the local Jewish population, Tobin was surprised by the extent to which his research bolstered that premise.

According to Tobin's just-released poll of Bay Area Jews, 90 percent of those surveyed do one or more of the following activities at home: watch TV programs with Jewish content (74 percent), read Jewish books (56 percent), listen to Jewish music (51 percent), read Jewish newspapers (50 percent) and rent videos with a Jewish subject matter (44 percent).

Ultimately, he said, the survey shows that participation in Jewish cultural activities is more widespread than participation in other Jewish-oriented activities, including those of a religious, philanthropic or Zionist nature. Moreover, the cultural factor should be taken into consideration when assessing the "Jewish content" of Bay Area residents' lives. "For starters, the whole argument of what a 'core' Jew is versus a 'marginal' Jew is an argument that I personally abhor," said Tobin. "The language itself is insulting." And, although Tobin himself would seem to fall into the former category — he attends synagogue, takes an active interest in Israel and has children who are actively involved in Jewish activities — he feels that since the majority of Bay Area Jews fall into the latter category, their Jewishness shouldn't be denigrated. "Nearly all of the people interviewed for the study (75 percent) feel that being Jewish is important to them, and a similarly high number want their children to be raised in a Jewish environment," he said.

The study involved both a mail survey sent to 8,693 households from the lists of Jewish organizations and a telephone survey using a sample of about 3,500 "distinctive Jewish names." The total number of surveys included is 1,446, with 1,276 from mailing lists and 170 from phone interviews. In addition, 45 people participated in focus groups. While researchers said they did their best to prevent bias, the study points out that some segments of the Jewish community may have been underrepresented, "including new immigrants, especially those who don't speak English, and Orthodox Jews."

The study had two major themes: Most Bay Area Jews identify through cultural means, and many more Jews would self-identify if the marketing by mainstream Jewish organizations improved. For example, Tobin said that no synagogues advertise in alternative weeklies such as the San Francisco Bay Guardian or the SF Weekly, publications whose primary readership is from the 25-to-45 age group underrepresented in synagogues.

Tobin also commented that the Jewish community's public relations materials are often poorly produced, both in terms of graphics and content. Based on his research, Tobin sees a need for cultural outlets such as a Bay Area Jewish cable TV network, a Jewish radio station, and a separate section in video stores for Jewish-themed materials.

When asked if such studies effect change, Tobin offered a sanguine response.

"That's always the hope, but you never know. I've been doing research for the past two decades that show that the cost of 'Jewish living' [day-school tuition, maintaining a kosher kitchen, elderly care] is inordinately high, but nothing has really been done about it.

"On the other hand, I did a study about a decade ago, concerning the ethnicity of Jewish respondents [i.e., black, Asian, Latino] was dismissed because the prevailing view was that there were no such Jews." Mainstream thinking has changed considerably on the subject since the initial survey's release, he added.

Tobin can also take pride that a survey he did several years ago about the high costs of sending children to Israel contributed significantly to the formation of the Birthright Israel program.

"If there's anything I would hope people would take away from this survey, it's how important it is to invest in Jewish culture," Tobin said. "It really should be the top funding priority for the community."