To Life! Festival:New Bridges at 6

Where do unaffiliated suburban Jews hang out? Where can you find those who don’t belong to a synagogue or go to a JCC?

Six years ago Carol Saal of Palo Alto, a longtime Palo Alto activist in the Bay Area Jewish community, and others began asking those questions. They handed out surveys at High Holy Day services and at the Peninsula run of the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival. The result was New Bridges to Jewish Community, an outreach organization designed to welcome the unaffiliated, numbering some 30,000 in the southern Peninsula, according to organizers.

Launched in 1998 by the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation, with funding from the Jewish Community Endowment Fund and a South Peninsula Council grant, New Bridges made a major splash two years later with the first “To Life!” fair.

Today, New Bridges has a database of some 1,800 names and is a program of the Albert L. Schultz Jewish Community Center in Palo Alto. While the street festival is the biggest event, New Bridges hosts an annual reception at the Peninsula opening of the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival. It’s also involved in co-organizing activities throughout the region and produces a weekly Internet newsletter compiling events of interest to both the affiliated and unaffiliated.

The Web site “is a collection of everything Jewish on the Peninsula,” said Linda Wittlin, New Bridges chair. Like the Web site, a typical newsletter includes information on holiday events, classes, lectures and cultural activities — not necessarily sponsored by new Bridges.

“We believe that we are a unique outreach organization in the United States,” said Wittlin, a San Carlos resident. New Bridges “does outreach to all ages and constituents in the Jewish community. Some groups focus on interfaith, children, seniors, singles or families. We focus on everybody.”

In addition, “we spend a lot of time referring people to Jewish organizations they wouldn’t know how to find — day schools, Torah studies, book groups,” she said, adding that the volunteers are knowledgeable about the various South Bay synagogues and community groups.

Today New Bridges is a largely lay-led effort, with staff support from the JCC and two consultants, the “To Life!” festival director and another who is developing the Newcomer Welcoming program, which is supported by the Koret and Walter and Elise Haas foundations. There is no membership per se. Instead, some 150 to 200 volunteers help to put on the festival and other events, and 14 serve on the steering committee.

Beyond the street fair and the film festival, New Bridges is involved in organizing new singles groups on the Peninsula, working in conjunction with other groups, and is co-sponsoring a comparative Judaism class on the Peninsula with Lehrhaus Judaica.

The series begins two days after the festival, at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, Oct. 26 at the Albert L. Schultz JCC, before moving to 11 synagogues on the Peninsula — “everything from Reform to Jewish Renewal to Chabad, and everything in between,” Wittlin said.

Following the introduction, each week participants will visit congregations, meeting with rabbis and educator, and will be invited back for services or Shabbat dinner.

“The genius behind” the class, said Wittlin, is Rabbi Ari Cartun of Congregation Etz Chayim in Palo Alto, one of the sponsors of the program. The official name is “‘Re-Con-New-Kara-Dox’: Visiting the Many Varieties of Judaism.”

Because the teaching will be done by synagogue educators and rabbis throughout the community, costs are a mere $25, for the program, which runs through Jan. 25.

Information on New Bridges: or (650) 852-3505. Judaism class:, (510) 845-6420 ext. 10, or [email protected].

Janet Silver Ghent
Janet Silver Ghent

Janet Silver Ghent, a retired senior editor at J., is the author of the forthcoming book “Love Atop a Keyboard: A Memoir of Late-life Love” (Mascot Press). She lives in Palo Alto and can be reached at [email protected].