The Jewish Film Institute Makes its Mark

If you are looking for the director’s cut of Paul Blart, Mall Cop, you’ve come to the wrong place. Neither will you find a lot of Rob Schneider or Adam Sandler titles. But if you are interested in thought-provoking Jewish-themed films that range from documentaries to thrillers to foreign films to romantic comedies, then you’ve come to the right place.

This place, of course, is the Jewish Film Institute, founded by Deborah Kaufman in 1980 (as the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival) with the goal of using film as a means to “spark a new and open discussion of politics and culture inside the Jewish community and to challenge Hollywood stereotypes of Jews in the public at large.” And, 36 years later, that mission continues to be realized as the Jewish Film Institute (JFI) has grown into a robust media arts organization with a new name and a slate of programs that are reaching audiences not just in the Bay Area but around the world.

JFI is reaching those audiences through a variety of platforms (their YouTube channel alone has received over 2 million views globally), but none is more popular than its annual film festival: the largest and most prestigious Jewish film festival in the world, with an annual attendance of more than 35,000 and over 120 screenings and events.

Lexi Leban

This year’s festival runs from July 21 through August 7, with showings throughout the Bay Area, starting at the Castro Theatre before migrating to Marin, Palo Alto, Berkeley, and Oakland. “As we like to say, the Castro Theatre is like our secular synagogue,” joked JFI Executive Director Lexi Leban. “We’ll be at the Castro for 10 days and then we’ll service the rest of the Bay Area – the diaspora – the following week. So if people can’t catch the films in the city they can catch them closer to where they live.”

The 2016 festival is a stellar event, even by JFI standards. Make that a series of events, including dozens of award winning films, such as the documentary, Robert Klein Still Can’t Stop His Leg. Following the film, Klein himself, one of the most influential comedians of the last 50 years, will participate in a live Q & A. Additionally, Adam Nimoy, son of Leonard Nimoy, will show his documentary, For The Love of Spock, and legendary television producer, Norman Lear, creator of the classic series, All in the Family, will receive JFI’s annual “Freedom of Expression Award” honoring, in Leban’s words, “Lear’s courage and unfettered imagination, which in our minds is the cornerstone of a free and just society.”

JFI is also a recent recipient of a $54,000 Federation grant intended to serve as seed-funding for one of its most innovative projects: “Talk Amongst Yourselves: JFI On Demand.”

“The Federation has been supporting us first as the Jewish Film Festival and then as the Jewish Film Institute for many, many years,” said Leban. “But this is the most exciting grant we’ve gotten to date because it’s really the Federation putting faith in us to experiment with new technology.”

That new technology will enable JFI to more deeply engage with partnering Bay Area Jewish agencies, as well as with its international audience, in order to promote events and community-wide conversations though its interactive online platform.  

“The goal is to inspire dialogue and, ultimately, to bring a film festival experience to your living room and living rooms around the world… and to see if we can replicate some of that dynamic discussion and amazing content in an online environment,” Leban explained.

The idea of bringing provocative films and programs to the people rather than bringing the people to the entertainment is an example of what Leban refers to as “our mitzvah screenings,” in which JFI delivers its films to Bay Area seniors who are less mobile and can’t come to the festival. Similarly, JFI has piloted a new program at San Quentin prison, where inmates who are interested in film and media will be granted the opportunity to see festival films and discuss them with others. “What we’re doing now is getting out into the community and serving people where they are.”

Ultimately, Leban says that JFI is dedicated to expanding our understanding of Jewish life and culture through film, media and dialogue, "and, of course, to celebrate and entertain and create community through these theatrical, sometimes transcendent experiences.”

If you are interested in truly understanding what she is talking about, you can attend any number of their events – in person or online – and visit their website to learn more.

Jewish Film Festival audience at the Castro Theatre in San Francisco

The Federation's grant to JFI is part of more than $1.1M in new endowment fund grants to outstanding community partners actively engaged in building and deepening Jewish community. 

JFI’s on-demand film library will eventually carry all the films ever shown at the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival (over 1,600 titles). This project builds on partnerships with other Bay Area Jewish agencies to promote events and community-wide conversations around four Jewish films a year, using tools like book group and study group models and online platforms to discuss Jewish themes and content. 

Categories: Grantees


July 26, 2016


Jon Moskin