The Castro Theatre, traditional epicenter of the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival. (Photo/Courtesy JFI-Barak Shrama)
The Castro Theatre, traditional epicenter of the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival. (Photo/Courtesy JFI-Barak Shrama)

40th San Francisco Jewish Film Festival postponed

For the first time in 40 years, there will be no San Francisco Jewish Film Festival this summer.

Blame the coronavirus for messing not only with our health, and the economy, but also with a summertime ritual that has long united many in the Bay Area.

The Jewish Film Institute, which produces the annual festival, told its supporters this week that due to myriad uncertainties caused by the coronavirus pandemic, the 2020 festival will be postponed, at least until the fall.

“This was an emotional decision for all of us, but clearly the only decision to make in light of the current projections for social distancing in the Bay Area and beyond,” Lexi Leban, JFI’s executive director, told J. “These past few weeks have been unlike anything we’ve experienced before.”

The world’s first Jewish film festival, and now the world’s largest, the S.F. Jewish Film Festival was to celebrate its 40th anniversary this summer, from July 16 to Aug. 2. About 40,000 people attended last year’s festival at theaters in San Francisco, Oakland, Albany, San Rafael and Palo Alto, organizers said.

A significant proportion of festivalgoers are older adults, who have a higher risk factor for complications from the virus. “The health and safety of our community comes first,” Leban said.

Planning the “mother of all Jewish film festivals” (as it is often described) is a year-round process, Leban said, that involves “a huge ecosystem of people who at least partially depend on us for their livelihood.” That list includes movie theaters, caterers, event planners, publicists and media partners.

“And if you’re going to cancel, it needs to be done early enough that you are not expending funds that cannot be recovered,” she added.

JFI has penciled in some November dates as a possibility for the festival, and officials will continue to monitor the advice of the scientific and health communities to guide their decision.

In the meantime, JFI is continuing to offer Jewish films online through features such as JFI On Demand, JFI Monthly Online Shorts and its newest initiative, the Cinegogue Sessions, which curates three films around a theme.

Also, JFI is going forward and accepting applicants for its Youth Jury, a summer program that provides film education to high schoolers while they screen festival entries and select a winning documentary.

Additionally, JFI will continue to support filmmakers who may be struggling to complete works under the strains of the pandemic. An April 3 deadline for JFI completion grants — which provide awards of $5,000 to $50,000 to filmmakers working with Jewish themes — has been pushed back to May 5.

“JFI has always been more than a summer festival,” Leban said. “If there is a silver lining to this situation, it is that we can spotlight all the things we do for the community besides the summer event.”

Leban added that while the staff continues to work in manifold ways to get Jewish films directly to the people, “We’re going to need the community to continue to generously give to this organization, as if we were having a festival. And hopefully we will, come fall.”

Laura Pall
Laura Paull

Laura Paull is J.'s former culture editor.