We’re still here: Documentary profiles dwindling, rural Jewish populations

  • The historic synagogue in Butte, Montana, is nearly empty these days, as just 30 Jews remain in the town. From “There Are Jews Here”

  • Mickey Radman, one of a handful of Jews remaining in Latrobe, Pennsylvania, contemplates the closing of his synagogue. From “There Are Jews Here”

  • Mickey Radman, at right, transfers a sacred Torah scroll from the synagogue in Latrobe, Pennsylvania to one in New Jersey. From “There Are Jews Here”

  • Karen Arenson, center, lights a candle at her new synagogue in Dothan, Alabama, after moving to the town from Los Angeles. From “There Are Jews Here”

  • A detail from Temple Agudas Achim in Laredo, Texas, where the small Jewish community is struggling to stay viable. From “There Are Jews Here”

  • Uri Druker, president of Temple Agudas Achim in Laredo, Texas, and his wife, Susie; she was raised Catholic but converts to Judaism. From “There Are Jews Here”

  • Brad Lichtenstein, director of “There Are Jews Here,” set out to document stories of small Jewish communities that struggle with declining membership.   2015 Milwaukee Film Festival

Staff Writer
Thursday, March 09, 2017

If there’s a moment in the documentary “There Are Jews Here” that sums up the dilemma dwindling Jewish congregations face, it might be when Mickey Radman, of Latrobe, Pennsylvania, finally drops the brave face he’s maintained through much of the film.

“A couple years ago this was unthinkable,” the elderly Radman says, as he contemplates the closing of the small synagogue he’s attended for decades. “And now it’s become a reality.”

And with that, Radman, facing the camera, silently begins to cry before abruptly turning and walking away.

Radman is just one of a host of likeable and engaging people whose lives are profiled in “There Are Jews Here,” an acclaimed film that looks at four towns and small cities — Butte, Montana; Dothan, Alabama; Laredo, Texas; and Latrobe — where Jewish communities are struggling to survive.

Nationally, about 1 million of America’s roughly 5.3 million Jews live outside of major cities, the filmmakers say.

The problems for those in smaller communities are universal. Assimilation, younger people leaving for work elsewhere, elderly parishioners dying, some members simply disengaging from the community — the people in “There Are Jews Here” face an attritional battle for which there are no easy solutions.

But the film, which screens Sunday at the Yiddish Book Center in Amherst, is not just a study of decline. Whether depicting prayer services, housewarming parties, or simple conversation, the documentary also offers moments of joy, humor and hope as interviewees talk about what Judaism and community mean to them.

“It think the film is resonating with non-Jews, too, because ultimately it’s really about community,” Brad Lichtenstein, the documentary’s director, said during a recent phone call from his home in Milwaukee, Wis. “There are declining populations in a lot of religions, not just Judaism.

“Yet people crave community,” Lichtenstein added, “and they try to make it any way they can.”

“There Are Jews Here” documents the unorthodox ways some communities have done this, such as Dothan’s pledge, through a program set up by a local Jewish philanthropist, to pay the moving expenses and related costs for Jews to resettle in the town.

And the film pays tribute to older generations passing the torch to younger people — like how the tiny congregation in Latrobe vows to keep its synagogue open long enough to allow its youngest member, 12-year-old Ellie Balk, to have her bat mitzvah there.

Finding the stories

Lichtenstein, who grew up in a Jewish community in Atlanta, has made numerous documentaries on social and cultural issues, such as a controversial mining project in a watershed area in Wisconsin and the violent 1971 uprising in Attica Prison in New York state.

He said the initial impetus for “There Are Jews Here” came from a friend, Mike Leven, who works with an organization that helps small Jewish communities insure their legacies if they close, such as by preserving sacred Torah scrolls or making arrangements to maintain historic cemeteries.

“Mike suggested there could be a good film in some of these stories, since [the closing of Jewish communities] was happening all across the country,” said Lichtenstein.

He and his co-producer, Morgan Elise Johnson, visited some 18 Jewish communities before settling on the four profiled in the film. The appeal of those towns, Lichtenstein said, came both from their diversity and the charisma of the people they talked to.

“With documentaries, you’re looking for people who can carry your story, and we found a really great bunch of people to talk to,” he said.

There’s Nancy Oyer, for instance, of Temple B’nai Israel in Butte, where just 30 Jews live in a town of nearly 34,000 people. Oyer, a native of Chicago who moved west for work as a geologist and her love of the mountains, is energetic, warm, articulate — and also weighed down by the effort of keeping her diminishing congregation afloat.

“It’s rewarding but exhausting,” says Oyer, who also leads some of the services at her synagogue (there is no regular rabbi). In one sequence, she hires a rabbinical student from Los Angeles to lead services during High Holy Days; he jokes that when he first heard from Oyer, his immediate thought was “There are Jews in Butte, Montana?”

It would seem there were a fair number of them in past decades. The handsome brick synagogue, opened in 1903, appears as if it can hold well over 200 people. One of the film’s most enduring images shows Oyer, strumming an acoustic guitar, as she accompanies just nine people in song during a service.

In Laredo, Texas, the president of the local temple, Uriel “Uri” Druker, can count about 130 Jews in the community — but that’s in a city of over 248,000 people. “We usually have just enough people to have a meeting,” he says at one point.

The Laredo section includes an additional story. Susie Druker, Uri’s wife, grew up Catholic and became estranged for a time from her parents when she married and took steps to convert to Judaism. The family’s synagogue has no education classes, though, so she attends a Torah class elsewhere in town, where discussion is in Spanish, English and Hebrew.

The couple want to stay in Laredo, but they’re worried their three young sons will grow up isolated in such a small congregation. They contemplate moving to San Antonio, which has a bigger and busier synagogue, but it’s a difficult decision: as Susie tearfully says, “I don’t want us to be just another number that left” Laredo.

Paying their way

Dothan, in southeastern Alabama, made national news in 2008 when the plan to help Jews move to the town, by covering up to $50,000 of their moving expenses, was announced. Lichtenstein said that kind of notoriety made him reluctant at first to film there. But then he met a Jewish couple in Los Angeles who wanted to relocate to Dothan, as life in the City of Angels was too expensive.

“There Are Jews Here” covers, sometimes humorously, the steps that Karen and Terrence Arenson, with their young daughter, Emily, take to start a new life in the Deep South. “No way!” Karen’s mother yells when her daughter calls her to break the news. “Alabama? What the hell is in Alabama?!”

As Lynne Goldsmith, rabbi of Dothan’s Temple Emanu-el, puts it, it’s all about community. “You really have to go out of your way here to be a Jew,” she says (Dothan has about 143 Jews and an overall population of 68,000).

But between regular recreational activities like dinners and a bowling night, services at the synagogue, and a few newcomers like the Arensons, the town’s Jewish members are hanging in there, Goldsmith says.

“If you don’t have a community, you’re like a Jewish monk,” she says, referring to towns where Jews no longer have any recourse for observing their faith together. “And we don’t do well as Jewish monks. We need community.”

“There Are Jews Here” plays March 5 at 2 p.m. at the Yiddish Book Center in Amherst. Tickets are $8 general admission, $6 for members, $4 for students.

To watch a trailer from the film, visit therearejewshere.com.