The marquee at the West Wind Capitol Drive-In in San Jose the night of the Jewish Study Network fundraiser, Nov. 15, 2020. (Photo/Deborah Melnick Hadjes)
The marquee at the West Wind Capitol Drive-In in San Jose the night of the Jewish Study Network fundraiser, Nov. 15, 2020. (Photo/Deborah Melnick Hadjes)

Jewish Study Network goes to the drive-in for pandemic-safe fundraiser

As the time for year-end fundraisers rolls around, Jewish organizations everywhere are being challenged by pandemic restrictions. Clearly, in-person annual galas are off the table.

What to do?

Rabbi Joey Felsen
Rabbi Joey Felsen

“Many have gone with virtual events, but we felt that the community is Zoomed out,” said Rabbi Joey Felsen, founder and executive director of the Jewish Study Network, which aims to increase adult Jewish learning in the Bay Area. “We were racking our brains. Then it hit me — that we should take everyone to a drive-in movie theater. That way, people would be totally safe, yet feel like they got to go out.”

On Nov. 15, that is exactly what happened, as more than 80 cars crammed in front of a screen at the West Wind Capitol Drive-In in San Jose for a fundraiser called the JSN Annual Experience.

Some people dressed up as if they were going to a swanky fundraiser in pre-Covid times, and others came in comfy, casual clothes. The crowd was “really diverse,” Felsen commented, which “the JSN is known for.”

The JSN fundraiser normally is a catered affair at a hotel. This time, those driving in were handed bottles of water and boxes with deli sandwiches by Abba’s Hummus (a new deli and hummus bar at Oakland Kosher Foods) through their car windows.

Wendy Kleckner of Palo Alto, who had catered the Annual Experience for the previous decade or so, attended as a regular ticket holder this time around and got the box dinner like everyone else.

“I was impressed,” she said. “It was a different vibe, but you still felt you were coming to support an organization you believed in and could be part of something.”

More than 80 cars crammed in front of a screen at the West Wind Capitol Drive-In in San Jose for a Jewish Study Network fundraiser, Nov. 15, 2020. (Photo/Deborah Melnick Hadjes)
More than 80 cars crammed in front of a screen at the West Wind Capitol Drive-In in San Jose for a Jewish Study Network fundraiser, Nov. 15, 2020. (Photo/Deborah Melnick Hadjes)

Each car received a copy of “Genesis: A Parsha Companion,” by Rabbi David Fohrman, and the program got going with short talks by Felsen and Rabbi Avi Lebowitz, JSN’s educational director.

Then came the screening of three short films, including “Mekonen,” the true story of an Ethiopian Jew who immigrated to Israel and became a paratrooper commander in the Israeli army. The other two films were a humorous short about a German Jewish grandmother and a previously recorded talk by Lord Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, who died Nov. 7.

Kleckner, for one, said she felt rewarded by the event and that she learned something. “At all good Jewish gatherings, you should learn something,” she said.

She and her husband, Howard, are members of Congregation Kol Emeth in Palo Alto who have been supporters of JSN almost since its inception in 2001.

“They bring learning to you wherever you are. Literally, you get a group together and they will show up to teach,” Kleckner said. “If you want to learn more about being a Jew, whatever level you’re at, they take you in a loving, nonjudgmental manner. There was a certain void in the Bay Area for unaffiliated Jews, and I have seen the organization grow with a great sense of pride.”

During the pandemic, JSN has pivoted to Zoom and audio-based classes, with offerings such as “Torah for Millennials” taught by Felsen and “Parsha Like Never Before” taught by Lebowitz, and “A Jewish Lens on Masculine and Feminine” taught by Felsen’s wife, Sarah.

The Annual Experience raises funds to help JSN provide options for people seeking varying levels of Jewish education. The 2020 edition raised nearly $300,000, said Felsen, who got the drive-in idea from local Jewish film festivals that used the drive-in concept in recent months.

For Kleckner and others, the format worked.

“Though we felt both far apart and close together at the same time, watching the screen, I have to say, it permitted us to feel connected,” she said. “Because we were all there, even though we were at the drive-in.”

Laura Pall
Laura Paull

Laura Paull is J.'s Culture Editor, and was a longtime J. freelance writer before that.