The big questions: JCF in S.F. hopes its survey will figure out who local Jews are, what they want

Not too many folks are happy to postpone their dinners to answer courtesy calls. But the S.F.-based JCF is hoping Bay Area Jews will make an exception.

The Jewish Community Federation is launching its first community survey in 18 years on Monday, Feb. 23, aiming to clarify just who and what is meant by the broad and frequently utilized term “Bay Area Jewish community.”

“It seems to me that in virtually every household someone could be touched by findings from this research, either an aging parent or a child who is ready for education, perhaps a Jewish education,” said Susan Folkman, the chair of the JCF’s community study advisory committee.

“It could be someone who is looking for social connections to the community, finding people to be with, or it could be people who are looking for better access to cultural and recreational activities that have Jewish content.”

In addition to clarifying the number, age and backgrounds of Jews in the S.F.-based JCF region, the survey will explore people’s needs and desires, or even if they wish to stay in the area.

But the only way the JCF and its many beneficiary agencies such as the Jewish Vocational Service and Jewish Family and Children’s Services will be able to glean that information is if people don’t hang up the phone.

And, at 25 minutes, the phone interview isn’t a process most people will want to undertake with dinner on the table. But, says survey consultant Bruce Phillips, 25 minutes is as tight as he can possibly go. The Bay Area’s Jewish community isn’t quite like others in the nation, he says, and writing a survey for it is tougher.

Unlike the 2000-2001 National Jewish Population Survey, which critics accused of devaluing cultural Jews or the children of intermarriage, the upcoming JCF survey casts a wide net in defining a Jewish or Jewishly connected person.

“They took a narrower definition. In other words, they didn’t count people who were ‘Christian Jews,’ the children of intermarriage. Those people were not counted as part of the Jewish population even if they had a Jewish parent and considered themselves Jewish,” said Phillips, a sociology professor at both Hebrew Union College and the University of Southern California.

Rather than discounting such people, he said, the survey will seek ways to include them in the greater community.

After three to four months of calls, Phillips hopes to unveil his results this fall.

Unlike the NJPS survey, which many believed alienated Jews in mentioning religion by the fourth sentence, the JCF survey will employ a more subtle “screener,” the early portion of the interview.

While less critical of the massive NJPS survey than San Francisco demographer Gary Tobin, its fiercest critic, Phillips concedes that the national survey was “messed up in several important ways.”

First, the unsubtle screener scared off Jews who were uneasy discussing religion on the phone with a stranger. Phillips also blames “sloppiness” for misapplied codes and lost data.

The last survey in the Bay Area, conducted by Tobin in 1986, confirmed the anecdotal claim that the Bay Area’s Jews are dispersed throughout the region; a national anomaly. It also led to outreach programs aimed at intermarried families and young adults.

Unlike Tobin’s survey, Phillips says his will put a “much bigger emphasis on different kinds of connection to the community” as well as sections on philanthropy and spirituality.

Tobin, who now focuses more on national and international issues, predicted the upcoming survey will reveal a larger Jewish community than people expect to find, just as his did in 1986.

Unlike the last survey, only the S.F.-based JCF’s coverage area — San Francisco, Sonoma, Marin and the Peninsula — will be included, as the San Jose and East Bay federations choose not to fund the study. JCF officials declined to reveal the survey’s cost.

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi is the managing editor at Mission Local. He is a former editor-at-large at San Francisco magazine, former columnist at SF Weekly and a former J. staff writer.