Doc film examines 4 isolated small town shuls

There Are Jews Here, a film by Brad Lichtenstein, 371 Productions.

By Donald H. Harrison

Donald H. Harrison

SAN DIEGO –This 90-minute documentary explores four small town shuls fighting to remain open at their respective homes in Latrobe, Pennsylvania; Butte, Montana; Laredo, Texas; and Dothan, Alabama.

Temple Emanu-El in Dothan seems to have the brightest future thanks largely to philanthropist Larry Blumberg, who created a $1 million fund to attract more Jewish families to the town and to thereby resuscitate its Jewish population.  The community offered $50,000 in relocation expenses to each family that would move to the town that bills itself as a peanut capital.

We watch as Terence and Karen Arenson make the transition from Los Angeles, where the cost of Jewish living seemed beyond their reach, to Dothan, where they can bring up their daughter Emily, 6, in the warm embrace of a community that treasures every Jew.

Rob Goldsmith, executive director of the relocation project, worked hard to make certain that the Arensons would adapt quickly to their new home. He helped them find a house, introduced Karen to a company where she found an office job; and arranged for the Arensons to be welcomed by their fellow congregants. The spiritual leader of the small congregation, Rabbi Lynne Goldsmith, officiated at a mezuzah placement ceremony at the Arensons’ new home, seemingly attended by every Jew in the community.

Yet, this was not a transition without poignancy. Karen’s mother, left behind in Los Angeles, was shocked to hear that her daughter, granddaughter and son-in-law would be moving nearly across the entire United States. Are there even Jews in Alabama? she wondered. A camera zoomed in as Karen cried during this telephone conversation with her mother (who later visited her in Dothan, in time for the ceremony dedicating their home )

In contrast to Dothan was Latrobe, Pennsylvania, where Beth Israel Congregation could just barely raise a minyan, only thanks to the efforts of five members of the Balk family, who commuted 90 miles roundtrip from Pittsburgh each Shabbat morning in an effort to keep the congregation going.

Mickey Radman, 82, who kept the shul open, knew the congregation’s days were numbered, and so after much discussion with other members of the congregation, decided to gradually close it down. Books and memorabilia were transferred to the Ruah Jewish Archives which maintains a collection on the Jewry of Western Pennsylvania. After Ellie Balk had her bat mitzvah, a Torah was transferred to the Jewish Community Center of Long Beach Island, New Jersey, about 350 miles away.

In a touching scene, congregants from Beth Israel Congregation marching under a chuppah escorted the Torah to its new home, where they were told by Rabbi Michael Jay that “your congregation will be connected with our congregation forever.”

Somewhere in between the situations of the Dothan and Latrobe shuls are the fortunes of dwindling congregations in Butte, Montana, and Laredo, Texas.

Uriel Druker, a young attorney, at the time of the documentary’s filming, had just become president of the Laredo congregation, more by default than by choice. No one else stepped up to take the job.

He was the only Jew that Susie Farias knew as she was growing up Catholic in the city. When they decided to marry, it was—as is often the case—emotionally heart-rending for Susie, who decided to convert to the religion of her husband-to-be. Her parents were stunned by her decision, and during one particularly tense month, they would not take Susie’s telephone calls. But eventually, they accepted what love had wrought – aided by the arrival of two adorable grandchildren.

While Dothan could import Jews from elsewhere, converting other Christians in Laredo really was not an option. There simply were not enough marriageable Jews in the congregation to make a difference.

We watch Susie learning prayers, attending a study group, and otherwise adjusting to Jewish life, and we see her agonize as her husband gamely but vainly tries to solicit positive ideas from the shrinking congregation about how to reinvigorate it.

Uriel visits the store of Les Norton, who had served as the congregation’s president or co-president, for 15 years but now is affiliated with a big synagogue in Dallas. “Sooner or later you have to face reality,” Norton tells him.

Eventually Uriel visits San Antonio, where he is attracted to the vibrant Jewish life. He is not ready yet to leave Laredo—the weight of the presidency is on his shoulders—but he fashions a contingency plan. He opens a second law office in San Antonio. He can see that his preschool children, touring through the JCC, are utterly thrilled in a facility where there is so much to do.

Personally, I’ve had the pleasure of visiting and writing about the synagogue in Butte, Montana, while I was researching my book Schlepping Through the American West: There is a Jewish Story Everywhere. A chapter from that book can be found among the web pages of San Diego Jewish World. There’s another Jewish connection between San Diego and Butte as well; back in his days as a student rabbi, Ohr Shalom Synagogue’s spiritual leader Rabbi Scott Meltzer served as a student rabbi there.

So it was particularly interesting to watch as another student rabbi visited Butte’s Temple B’nai Israel to conduct Yom Kippur services. Although she could have led the services herself, the congregation’s president Nancy Oyer didn’t feel emotionally ready for the Yizkor portion of the service. Her mother had died too recently. The movie camera, which was allowed in the congregation, focused relentlessly on Oyer’s grieving. She recovered, as we all must, and later led congregational singing.

Oyer had taken over the duty of leading services from cantorial soloist Janet Cornish, a cantorial soloist, who retired after 30 years as the lay spiritual leader. The presidency and spiritual leadership of a small congregation are large tasks; there are few other people to whom responsibilities can be delegated.

At one point during the documentary, Oyer was sidelined by severe migraine headaches – a situation prompting Cornish to graciously return for a brief while.

Clearly, there is a critical mass that is needed to keep a synagogue flourishing. We Jews need a minyan to pray, and even greater numbers to enable a synagogue to be the home for all the services we desire: a place of worship, a place of study, a place to do good deeds, a place to socialize.

The congregants in Butte, Dothan, Laredo, and Latrobe all practice Judaism far from the main centers of American Jewish life. They are dedicated not only to keeping Judaism alive for the present generations but to pass it on to future ones. After watching There Are Jews Here, you’ll want to salute all of them.

Congratulations are due to the film makers who sharpen our understanding of the sacrifices our brothers and sisters in small, Jewishly-isolated towns across America make to keep the faith. A trailer of the film, and further information, may be viewed via http://therearejewshere.com

*
Harrison is editor of San Diego Jewish World. He may be contacted via [email protected]

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Copyright 2017 San Diego Jewish World

One Response to “Doc film examines 4 isolated small town shuls”

  1. Thank you for your beautiful review of the movie! If anyone wants to learn more about Dothan’s Jewish Family Relocation Program, they can visit us at bfjcs.org.

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