The main thing director Brad Lichtenstein wants people to think about with the film “There Are Jews Here” — one of two films being shown during the West Virginia Jewish Film Festival Sunday afternoon at Park Place Stadium Cinemas in Charleston — is that it’s not just a film about the Jewish people.
“It’s not just for Jews,” the 48-year-old director said.
Lichtenstein’s film takes a look at the quiet evaporation of Jewish communities around the country, most of which are in the small towns of rural America.
Like other communities of people, particularly religious communities, Jews have seen their numbers diminish as young people move away from home and often never come back.
“The trend is to move to cities,” he said. “Combined with the shrinking importance of religion in most people’s lives, these small-town communities are fading away.”
Lichtenstein pointed out that Jewish communities might be even more susceptible to diminishing than non-Jewish communities in small towns.
“Jews aren’t evangelical,” he said.
Meaning, they don’t typically recruit people to join their faith.
Lichtenstein added that the erosion was affecting reformed Jewish communities more than Orthodox Jews, which have seen some new members arrive through a subgroup called Habad which does evangelize and try to win converts.
Without a way to stop the erosion, these communities are faced with new realities. Often, they either have to link with other communities to cobble together resources to continue, or they have to make plans for the inevitable end.
Lichtenstein said the idea to do the documentary came from an old friend, Michael Levin, the president and chief operating officer of the Las Vegas Sands Corporation, which develops and operates resort hotels and casinos worldwide.
Levin sponsored Lichtenstein’s first documentary when the director was still in his 20s.
“He supports a small group called The Jewish Community Legacy Project,” Lichtenstein said.
The group reaches out to small, Jewish communities that are becoming terminal.
“They help them make plans for what they’re going to do when everyone has left town,” Lichtenstein said.
Who’s going to take care of the cemeteries? What will happen to the synagogue or temple? Are there assets that need to be sold?
“Mike had some of those stories and then asked me if I thought there was a documentary,” Lichtenstein said.
From there, Lichtenstein and his co-director, Morgan Elise Johnson, spent several months on the phone talking with Jewish communities around the nation.
“There are hundreds in this situation,” he said. “We eventually visited 19 of them and settled on four for the documentary.”
They chose Jewish communities in Montana, Texas, Alabama and Pennsylvania and then spent over two years getting to know them.
“It takes time to get real stories from real people,” he said.
It also took time in some cases to figure out what to focus on.
While each town or city had the same basic problem, a declining population, their individual stories varied. Some were further along toward the end of their communities. Others were still struggling to keep going somehow, even to the point of offering a kind of bounty to get Jewish families to join them.
Lichtenstein said, “There are some funny moments, but these are sad stories.”
He said he was glad to bring “There Are Jews Here” to Charleston. He was glad to bring it to as many places as possible.
“We’ve got showings planned all over the place and hope maybe it can help people identify communities that find themselves in similar circumstances.”
Admission to the film festival and to both films is free and open to the public. The West Virginia Jewish Film Festival is sponsored by Federated Jewish Charities of Charleston.
Reach Bill Lynch at 304-348-5195 ,firstname.lastname@example.org or follow @LostHwys on Twitter.
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