The Festival was an immediate hit, featuring movies for a new generation bred on mass media but tired of Hollywood's limited portrayals of Jewish life. SFJFF sought out films with diverse points of view for those who did not affiliate with-or indeed had become disaffected by-traditional Jewish institutions. Just as importantly, SFJFF provided a safe entryway into Jewish culture for anyone willing to pay the cost of a movie ticket.
The programming approach was fresh and bold: SFJFF offered a departure from commercial presentations of Holocaust themes, which tended to emphasize Jews' victim status, while providing alternatives to the often uncritical view of life and politics in Israel available in the established American Jewish community. The Festival also made a strong point of including and celebrating films about communities not often heard from in mainstream life, including Sephardic Jewish life, the culture of Mizrahi Jews (Jews from Arab lands), LGBT stories, as well as quirky and experimental cinema that expanded the notion of Jewish film. The Festival's early years included film screenings in both Berkeley and San Francisco-first at the Roxie Theatre, and later at the venerable Castro Theatre beginning in 1988.
In its first decade, the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival reached wider audiences with three national tours sponsored by the American Film Institute and Landmark Theatres, while its screenings in the Bay Area drew ever larger audiences and national recognition. In 1990, Kaufman and Plotkin took the SFJFF to Moscow despite enormous logistical and bureaucratic obstacles. Mainstream American Jewish organizations, who were organizing airlifts of Soviet Jews to Israel, at first did not support the SFJFF's work to strengthen Jewish life and culture in the former USSR, but the significance of this event was clear: the first Moscow Jewish Film Festival drew more than 60,000 people, becoming the largest Jewish event in the history of the Soviet Union/Russia.
As the Jewish film festival movement has grown (there are now more than 100 worldwide), SFJFF-drawing the largest audiences among them-plays an important leadership role in the world of independent Jewish film, offering advice and support to filmmakers and to U.S. and international Jewish film festivals. Its catalog of Jewish cinema - Independent Jewish Film: A Resource Guide, which is updated every five years and is now available online - has become a valuable resource in libraries and archives. Its chapter on "how to do your own Jewish film festival" is still something of a bible for all community-based festivals. In 2000, the SFJFF played host to the first National Conference of Jewish Film Festivals, organized by the National Foundation for Jewish Culture, with 31 participating Jewish Film Festivals.
From its earliest year, the Festival has discovered and nurtured international cinematic talents such as Amos Gitai, Dani Levy, and Peter Forgacs, sometimes long in advance of their discovery by mainstream international festivals. Nationally, the SFJFF has been an important theatrical launching pad for successful features and documentary films, such as God Is Great And I'm Not, Promises, Strange Fruit, Trembling Before G-D, Hiding And Seeking, and The Life And Times Of Hank Greenberg. Filmmakers exploring Jewish themes often start their careers by having a short film in the SFJFF and many of them return to the SFJFF with feature length documentaries and narratives.
During the 2000's, SFJFF expanded its year-round role as a champion of Jewish-themed film to diverse audiences, and widened the accessibility of its programs and mission. SFJFF inaugurated its annual Freedom of Expression Award given during the Festival (given to such trailblazers as Dani Levy, Sayed Kashua and Kirk Douglas); expanded its year-round service to youth and young adults through the New Jewish Filmmaking Project; launched a series of free screenings in local senior residences (affectionately nicknamed the Mitzvah Series,)...and established the Jewish Film Forum, whose members support the mission and programs of SFJFF. Through its annual programs and summer festival, SFJFF continued to welcome some 35,000 audience members annually to its theatrical programming.
Recognizing the dynamic shifts in the way audiences view, share and create media in an increasingly digital and interconnected environment, in 2009 SFJFF launched its New Media Initiative, seeking to bring SFJFF's groundbreaking model of curation, context and community to the online world. The first phase included a searchable database of 1400 SFJFF films, plus educational curricula and streaming media, including a monthly showcase of free online short films that has attracted more than 2 million views to date.
In 2010, SFJFF was named one of the 50 most innovative Jewish organizations in the U.S. by the Slingshot Fund, and was listed by IndieWire as among the top 50 film festivals worldwide - accolades that confirm and bolster SFJFF's commitment to sustaining its leadership position at the intersection of media arts and Jewish culture worldwide.