Community resurgence will require new, progressive initiatives

The Bay Area Jewish community has a well-deserved reputation for leadership and innovation.

Our response to absorption of Soviet Jews in the early 1980s, our support of operations Exodus, Solomon and Moses for Soviet and Ethiopian Jewry rescue, resettlement and renewal, and our call for accountability and our direct support of designated Israel projects are a few past instances of community initiative.

Big challenges elicit new and reinvigorated leadership.

The time is right for a similar call to response and initiative. Can the funding organizations provide the leadership and planning to collectively address major community issues? If so, there are at least three major synergistic challenges that could receive broad community response.

1) Sustained community outreach to attract unaffiliated and intermarried Jews by lowering the cost barriers to membership.

We do not need more demographic surveys to understand that fewer Jews and their children are participating in Jewish life. Given the high unaffiliated and intermarriage rate in the Bay Area, now is the time to reach out to and provide new low-cost options for the unaffiliated and intermarried to participate in our community (not necessarily through membership).

There is no one organization that can do this. Jewish community centers, summer camps and synagogues are the best portals to attract people to Jewish life, but the current pricing models may be prohibitive to attract sustained involvement.

This merits new thinking for a sustained communitywide plan that is multifaceted to meet this need. Jewish children should have Jewish rights (and rites), and not simply based on their parents’ willingness to fork over thousands of dollars a year for Jewish affiliation. We can do better.

2) Make the connection to Israel easy, inexpensive and attractive for all who wish to go.

Provide support to encourage individuals and organizations to go to Israel for multiple purposes. There is no substitute for visiting Israel to vitalize Jewish consciousness, identity and involvement. Efforts for teens are important, but the connection to Israel should be lifelong.

There are many active seniors in our community who might be induced to visit Israel as well as organizations who could organize membership trips. We should find ways to subsidize or match organizational and individual trips to Israel in an appropriate way.

The Birthright program has shown that subsidized trips to Israel to the unaffiliated can be attractive and bring people into the community who might be lost. Israel needs us and we need Israel. There can be no greater investment in our community than a massive living bridge to Israel.

3) Utilize technology such as cable TV to reach out to the broader Jewish community and bring Jewish culture, consciousness, identity and education to the masses.

Yes, there is no substitute for personal involvement and activity. However, we are currently only serving a small fraction of our community through our organizations. There is a wealth of available Jewish content such as Jewish films, speaker presentations, cooking shows, Israeli programming, etc.

While there are hundreds of cable stations for evangelical Christians, ethnic groups such as Hispanics and niche interests such as home decorating, our community has to go hat in hand to PBS and other cable stations for time slots.

If we are serious about outreach, then use of the media such as cable TV, radio and the Internet should be a strategic priority for the community.

There is a media revolution: Digital TV provides more channels for special-interest programming; TiVo enables viewers to self-program for their convenience; and satellites create national, regional and local broadcasting access at much lower costs than the old network affiliates system. Everything has changed in media, except the way we in the Jewish community have approached it to address our own needs.

All of these challenges require planning and resources. No one organization or group of organizations can address the challenge for the community. Yet, isn’t reaching out to our unaffiliated and intermarried Jews, fostering the personal experience of Israel into our lives and using technology to increase the consciousness, identity, and affinity to Judaism and the Jewish people worthy of leadership and vision?

If not now, when?

Jeff Saperstein teaches marketing at San Francisco State University and is a former marketing director at the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation.