The Latrobe, Pa., Jewish community is reaching its end, but its Torahs have found a new home in New Jersey, as shown in “There Are Jews Here,” showing Feb. 1 and 12.
The documentary “There Are Jews Here” tackles a topic close to my heart: small if not vanishing Jewish communities in America.
Some of my ancestors lived in tiny Southern Jewish communities that are no more, and my wife, sons and I lived amid a handful of scattered Jews an hour from any synagogue in rural North Carolina. So I find stories about how Jews end up in unusual places and how those communities do or do not survive endlessly fascinating.
November’s Southern Jewish Historical Society conference in one such community, Natchez, Miss., attracted me with its focus on Jews living far from big cities, and a bus ride from Natchez to Jackson was the first time I was exposed to “There Are Jews Here,” although a technical glitch prevented a full screening.
The documentary, largely financed by the family foundation of Jewish Atlantans Michael and Andrea Leven, looks at four communities: Latrobe, Pa., with 10 Jews in a population of 8,195; Butte, Mont., 30 out of 33,854; Laredo, Texas, 130 out of 248,142; and Dothan, Ala., 143 Jews out of 68,001 people. All of them have long Jewish histories, reflected in their Jewish cemeteries and beautiful synagogues, and all of them face uncertain Jewish futures.
Filmmaker Brad Lichtenstein, an Atlanta native, starts with a line about 1 million Jews living in small towns but doesn’t define his terms. Laredo highlights the issue: With a quarter of a million people, it’s not a small town; it’s just a small Jewish community. It’s also the least interesting of the four stories.
Latrobe, about 45 minutes from Pittsburgh, is easily the most interesting story, one worthy of a film by itself. Beth Israel Congregation opened its first building early in the 20th century, but “There Are Jews Here” captures the Jewish community’s final days, including the last bat mitzvah celebration and the transfer of the two Torahs to a growing congregation in New Jersey.
The end also appears imminent for Congregation B’nai Israel in Butte, which is about the same age as the Latrobe congregation. But we learn less about the synagogue than we do about Nancy Oyer, the woman who serves as the spiritual leader despite a lack of rabbinic training, and about the strange but somehow typically Jewish split between the congregation and Oyer’s longtime predecessor.
Similarly, we learn more about the family of Congregation Agudas Achim President Uri Druker and his formerly Catholic wife, Susie, in Laredo than we do about the city on the Mexican border town or why it is struggling to support even one congregation where two thrived several decades ago.
Dothan, which has the largest Jewish community of the four, has famously responded to the risk of losing population in a town that’s more than three hours from Atlanta and almost two hours from Tallahassee, Fla., by offering a $50,000 bounty for Jewish families who move there. We get to see the program in action for one family leaving Los Angeles. Sadly, we don’t hear anything about Dothan’s legendary Hadassah chapter.
As a portrayal of individuals, what their communities mean to them, and the decisions they face about staying and going, “There Are Jews Here” succeeds, particularly in Latrobe and Dothan.
But it’s not the film I wanted to see. I want to know how Jews came to these communities in the first place and why their numbers have declined, but Lichtenstein doesn’t provide that history.
Still, as long as you are prepared for the stories of a few people instead of a few communities, “There Are Jews Here” is a moving presentation of a slice of the story of Jews in America.