“There Are Jews Here”
“There Are Jews Here” is a feature documentary that takes us to places where most never imagined Jews existed and shares the untold stories of four once thriving American Jewish communities that are now barely holding on. After Hurricane Katrina, I was evacuated to a place known as Pine Bluff, Arkansas and there I met what was left of a once thriving Jewish community and it was such a contrast to other Jewish communities I had visited. Most of us are unaware of the roughly one million Jews scattered across far-flung communities. For them, Jewish identity is a challenge; if they don’t personally uphold their communities and live affirmative Jewish lives, they and their legacies could be lost forever. “There Are Jews Here” brings us stories that explore Jewish/religious identity, the value of Jewish continuity, and the relevance of faith and community in the 21st century. The movie allows us to visit four such communities— Laredo, Texas, Butte, Latrobe, Pennsylvania and Dothan, Alabama. This is something of a warning that their histories, synagogues, cemeteries, and sacred possessions (i.e. Torahs, prayer books, memorial plaques, etc.) could vanish without a trace.
Producer and director Brad Lichtenstein discovered a new world in making this film, a world where identity is a daily challenge. If the Jews in these small towns do not personally uphold their communities and live affirmative Jewish lives, they and their legacies could be lost forever. We see that wherever we go, even to small towns, we hear the same prayers, songs and traditions. By telling the stories of people whose devotion to Judaism and the Jewish community is still story, we see the unsettling truths about changing Jewish demographics without despairing for the Jewish future. Many small-town Jewish communities face dwindling Jewish populations and attempt to plan for their futures. This is what I saw in Pine Bluff— a small group of Jews managed to keep their traditions and their temple alive until about two years ago when they could no longer do so. The reasons come from many different issues—- Along the way, the film touches upon related topics the declining role of Jewish merchants in small-town America, the impact of intermarriage on Jewish life, and the way small communities cope with the absence of regular clergy.
Looking at one individual or family in each of the four towns, we get a narrative and into a significant reality of early twenty-first century Jewish life in America and the gradual disappearance of many small-town Jewish communities. There are both joys and challenges.
Many of the ways that Jewish life in small towns differs from the large cities in which the vast majority of American Jews live. Parents worry how their children can have a strong Jewish education without the resources of a large community and it is very hard for congregations survive and thrive, even without trained clergy and to provide for their members’ current needs while facing an uncertain future. Jewish life.
I doubt that we think of Latrobe, Pennsylvania, Dothan, Alabama, Butte, Montana and Laredo, Texas when we think about Jewish communities and we are
surprised that there actually is Jewish life in those places. There are many tender moments here and it is amazing to see heartbreak on the faces of real Jewish people, fighting to keep tiny communities alive for a few more years. We see synagogues that can hold hundreds with a half-dozen people in the seats, a student rabbi brought in for Yom Kippur and a meeting where the last few congregants decide to wait to disband and close down their congregation until after one last bar mitzvah.
For these communities, aging congregants and dwindling interest are more than peripheral issues—they’re existential threats. The towns must define themselves in contrast with big city life somewhere else.
Nancy Oyer, president of the Butte congregation, fights back tears as her migraines keep her from leading her handful of friends and neighbors in her typically guitar-heavy service. The Balk family drive 45 minutes into Latrobe every Saturday morning, making up 6 of the 10 needed for a minyan. Susie, who converted when she married still feels like a bit of an outsider; when the family does havdalah.
For some communities, the Jews seem to be perfectly suited to outsider status. There is also hope, however small. The Balk family watches as their eldest daughter has the final bat mitzvah in their little synagogue and even though the building will be gone, the memory of it will remain with her and with the archivist who comes by to preserve. The film closes with the Torah from the Latrobe synagogue being used on Simchat Torah at a community on the Jersey shore.