Jewish Film Festivals Reel in the Crowds

Across the U.S. and beyond its borders, in cities big and small, the movie house is replacing the minyan as the go-to-gathering for community-minded Jews.

Once upon a time, it was enough to have a synagogue to declare yourself on the map. Today, any self-respecting Jewish community also has to have its own Jewish film festival, and in some cases, the red-carpet affair is more crucial than a rabbi.

The number of Jewish film festivals worldwide now tops 200, with 150 of them in the United States alone. That's more than double the number 10 years ago, and new sprocket operas are cropping up every day.

"They're a huge success and bigger than ever," says Isaac Zablocki, who keeps things running at the Jewish Film Presenters Network, a forum of festival and cinema directors in the United States. A survey undertaken by the network found that a total of 1,222 films were screened at these festivals by its members last year.

Where the synagogue once was a place where Jews gathered together and basked in the warmth of community, the festival – and its packed movie houses – now often fills the same void. In other instances, they give the Jewish community a platform to showcase and share their culture with their non-Jewish neighbors.

Some fests are huge, presenting anywhere from 50 to 100 films in one run. Others are tiny, with just three or four pics taking a bow.

In some cases, the local Jewish Community Center spearheads the operation, while others go at it alone or with the help of endowments. Some skew more Hollywood-style, with full-time paid programmers who scour the globe for the next big Semitic thing. Others are run by retired Savtas, volunteers from the local Hadassah chapter.

Sometimes the festival is housed in posh art-house theaters rented specifically for the occasion. Other affairs are more home-grown, with portable screens propped up in synagogue sanctuaries, flickering away for the crowds just a few inches from the ark.

The biggest, boldest and most trendsetting of festivals can be found, not surprisingly, in the splashier cities: San Francisco, Toronto, Atlanta, New York and Washington, D.C. In these bright towns, large Jewish communities provide a captive audience and it's fairly standard for the most-anticipated films to use the fests for their world premieres.

Some festivals have grown so big that they are logrolled with learning: They offer special sidebars on topics as diverse as women in the Holocaust and Jews in jazz.

And some have slimmed down and honed in, running narrower niche festivals within the broader Jewish category. The JCC in Manhattan, for example, hosts the Faygele Film Festival, which showcases LBGT films with a Jewish twist, and Saviors on the Screen, devoted entirely to films about rescuers in the Holocaust.

"I like to say we're the largest secular synagogue in the Bay Area," says Jay Rosenblatt, the program director at the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival, the oldest and largest Jewish film fest in the world. Rosenblatt, an acclaimed documentary filmmaker in his own right, says festivals offer secular Jews a way to connect with their tradition. "Many Jews may not be affiliated but they have a strong Jewish cultural identity, and we feed into that," he says. "We're a place to reconnect with Jewish culture, build community and feel something greater than oneself."

The San Francisco Jewish Festival opened its three-week annual festival on July 19. First launched in 1980, the fest this year will be screening 63 films from 17 different countries in seven separate venues. Rosenblatt says he expects about 30,000 people to attend.

Jewish film is so popular, it even crosses borders.

"People are hungry for something Jewish these days, and they're finding it at our festivals," says Helen Zukerman, the founder and executive director of the Toronto Jewish film festival, and widely regarded as a pioneer in the field. "It's a way of bringing people together who wouldn't ordinarily get together because they don't go to synagogue."

Israeli cinema also plays a big role.

Zablocki, who also runs the Israel Film Center in New York, as well as film programs at the JCC in Manhattan, says the recent explosion in Jewish film festivals is in many ways also a response to the international success of Israeli cinema. "The Israeli film industry is definitely pushing this," he says. "People hear about Israeli films that have been shown in Cannes and Berlin but can't see them at their local theaters. So the Jewish film festivals provide that opportunity," he says.

The percentage of Israeli films now being shown at Jewish film festivals, according to festival directors, is about 30-40 percent – much higher than it had been in the past – and many of the new film festivals to sprout up in recent years are devoted exclusively to Israeli film.

For Susan Barocas, the director of the Washington Jewish Film Festival, these festivals have become a way for Jewish communities to welcome non-Jews into their midst and share their experiences and culture. "I believe that people want to learn about others who are not like them, and film is such a great vehicle for this because it's an international language," says Barocas, whose festival was launched in 1990 with eight films. It now programs 60, and the audience is quite diverse. "We now have a very strong component of people who come who aren't Jewish," she says.

The snowbird Jews of Hartford, Connecticut, where Harriet Dobin runs an annual Jewish film festival, plan their schedules around the films. "On the last day of the festival each year, people already want to know our exact dates for the coming year so they can be sure to be back from Florida by then," she says.

And the trend runs deep into rural America. Jewish film festivals can be found today Tuscaloosa, Alabama, Alaska (home of the so-called "Frozen Chosen"); Quad Cities, Iowa; Lexington, Kentucky, and Honolulu, Hawaii. Altoona, Pennsylvania, no longer has a full-time rabbi, but it does have an annual Jewish film festival.

Indeed, in many pockets of small-town Americana, the only film festival to roll into town is the Jewish one.

The trend is far from confined to the big Jewish population centers of North America. Jewish film festivals can be found today in as unlikely places as Tuscaloosa, Alabama; Anchorage, Alaska (home of the so-called "Frozen Chosen"); Quad Cities, Iowa; Lexington, Kentucky, and Honolulu, Hawaii. Altoona, Pennsylvania, no longer has a full-time rabbi, but it does have an annual Jewish film festival. Indeed, in many small towns across rural America, the Jewish film festival is also the only film festival that exists for local residents.

Jewish film festivals are also attracting audiences across the Atlantic in cities like Zagreb and Bucharest and across the Pacific Ocean in Hong Kong. Mainland China will host its first Jewish film festival this October, with screenings scheduled for both Beijing and Shanghai.

But the more film festivals change, the more some things stay the same.

In Warsaw, there are exhibitions of Jewish film, which for several years have been embroiled in a legal battle over which is "real" fest. In Los Angeles and Philadelphia, where Israeli ex-pats felt that not enough Israeli films were being shown at the Jewish film festivals, Jewish and Israeli film festivals exist side by side. Such was the impetus for new Israeli film festival launched this year in London, where the U.K .Jewish Film Festival has been operating for 16 years.

"We wanted a festival that was truly Israeli," explains Patty Hochmann, one of its founders. In Pittsburgh, the bid to appeal to all different tastes has taken the form of a "Jewish-Israeli" film festival.

Remember the one about the Jew stranded on a desert island who sets up two synagogues, one he attends and one he boycotts? Some things, it appears, never change.