Review: ‘There Are Jews Here’ is a tender avalanche

“There Are Jews Here” is an avalanche of tender moments, occupying time in a way that could make a film as boring as a dreary winter day.

Yet this locally-produced documentary is not boring but burying, with the avalanche heaving loss, loyalty and yiddishkeit straight at us. It’s sadly riveting to see heartbreak on the faces of real Jewish people, fighting to keep tiny communities alive for a few more years. They’re people like you and me, trying to be dauntless in the face of hopelessness, as too many congregants pass away or move out of town. They’re Jews.

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 shutter their shul until after one last bat mitzvah.

Brad Lichtenstein owns and operates 371 Productions, which produces documentaries. Though most of his work is not Jewish in character he sees it all as an effort towards tikkun olam, or repairing the world. Submitted photo.

Brad Lichtenstein is president of 371 Productions, which produces documentaries. Though most of his work is not Jewish in character he sees it all as an effort towards tikkun olam, or repairing the world. Submitted photo.

In one storyline, a congregant steps in as an acting rabbi, taking the reins from the person before her. She’d provided something of a rescue for a shul without alternatives, but then illness forces her to step out.

Local filmmaker Brad Lichtenstein spent his early years in Jewish day school and has served on the board of Milwaukee Congregation Shir Hadash. He says he’s hopeful the film will prompt larger communities to help smaller communities.

Understanding that he brought a Jewish bias to the film as its director, he employed a non-Jewish producer/co-director, Morgan Elise Johnson, to work on the film with him. No doubt, “There Are Jews Here” has universal themes, but it’s a Jewish film. You’ll find yourself singing along with melodies and prayers you’ll recognize. Ironically, hundreds or even thousands will sing with these isolated cultural heroes.

Lichtenstein himself says he thinks of his film as “a little bit like a musical.” This element, along with so many moments of connection, helps keep the film uplifting instead of depressing.

It even ends with a lovely scene of Jewish continuity, one that wasn’t added until the film was nearly done. Multiple small-town Jewish communities generated evolving storylines that couldn’t be predicted. This meant much of what’s recorded will never be used, Lichtenstein said in an interview. There were more than 70 shooting days for “There Are Jews Here,” in Butte, Montana; Dothan, Alabama; Laredo, Texas and Latrobe, Pennsylvania.

One has the sense these towns represent hundreds more and that they could represent the future for larger communities if current trends are not somehow abated.

“There Are Jews Here” focuses on several families, including the Arensons, who take part in the Family Relocation Project of Blumberg Family Jewish Community Services of Dothan, Alabama. The program provides financial relocation assistance of up to $50,000. Here, Karen Arenson lights candles in Dothan with her daughter Emily. Submitted photo.

“There Are Jews Here” focuses on several families, including the Arensons, who take part in the Family Relocation Project of Blumberg Family Jewish Community Services of Dothan, Alabama. The program provides financial relocation assistance of up to $50,000. Here, Karen Arenson lights candles in Dothan with her daughter Emily. Submitted photo.

Yet it’s strangely disturbing to see a small-town Jewish family tour a large, beautiful San Antonio synagogue, with not one but two rabbis. You can’t help but think of their struggling group back home in Laredo. “We get about 60 to 70 on a Friday night,” says one of the San Antonio rabbis, Jeffrey Abraham, during a tour that glistens with success.

What’s that look in the eyes of Susie and Uri Druker during their tour? Happiness? Or horror at how great it looks?

“It would be hard to leave because so many people have,” says a teary Susie Druker. “And that’s why the numbers shrink and that’s why things don’t get better. I don’t want us to be … just another family that left.”

“It’s easy to leave. And go to something that’s already well run and well established and with a lot of people. It’s harder to stay and make it work.”

“There Are Jews Here,” produced by 371 Productions, 220 E. Buffalo St., Milwaukee, is part of the 2016 Milwaukee Film Festival. It’s expected to air on public television and become available through streaming services at a later date.

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See it at the Milwaukee Film Festival

“There Are Jews Here” is part of the Milwaukee Film Festival at the following times.

  • Sunday, Sept. 25, 8 p.m. – Oriental Theatre, 2230 N. Farwell Ave., Milwaukee
  • Saturday, Oct. 1, 1:30 p.m.– Landmark Downer Theatre, 2589 N. Downer Ave., Milwaukee
  • Wednesday, Oct. 5, 9:30 p.m. – Fox Bay Cinema Grill, 334 E. Silver Spring Drive, Whitefish Bay
  • Thursday, Oct. 6, 3:30 p.m. – Oriental Theatre, 2230 N. Farwell Ave., Milwaukee

More info: MkeFilm.org; ThereAreJewsHere.com