Jews Forging Own Paths in Margins of Mainstream

The documentary film 'Fringes' provides contrast to the picture painted by recent Pew survey: Jewish community is at core of what everyone seeks.

NEW YORK − You know the dispiriting picture portrayed by the recent Pew survey of Jewish Americans … suburban synagogues in their death throes and apathetic Jews more interested in checking out than opting into Jewish life? You won’t find them in the new movie “Fringes,” which looks at two couples and a group of friends on the margins — the fringes — of Jewish life in America and Israel. The documentary film is having its U.S. premiere Tuesday at the Jewish Community Center of Manhattan.

While they may be on the fringes, these young Jews are taking original, often bumpy paths to creating Jewishly engaged lives on their own terms.

The movie, by Jerusalem-based documentary filmmaker Paula Weiman-Kelman, focuses on two American Jewish couples: Rabbi Liebish and Dena Hundert are an unusually creative, Orthodox pair who start a student-oriented synagogue/music café in Montreal near McGill University. After more than a decade of the grueling work of raising money to pay the rent and salaries on the endeavor they leave to pursue other options. Pablo and Esther Elliott are a young couple — she spent her early childhood in the former Soviet Union and he grew up Catholic, converting to Judaism shortly before they married — striving to lead a religiously observant life while tending the family farm in rural Virginia.

The film also documents the birth of the Jerusalem Secular Yeshiva as three young men and a few dozen enthusiastic participants paint their building and study together.

“When you see the headlines, when you see what’s happening in the Jewish world it’s hard to see that there are positive things going on,” said Weiman-Kelman in an interview from Trento, Italy, where she was showing “Fringes” at the Religion Today Film Festival. “We wanted to show people with non-traditional identities, with complicated relationships with being Jewish, struggling with it and finding meaning with it. They weren’t necessarily doing what their parents did, but still really connected to the past — and to the future.”

It took Weiman-Kelman and her producer, Jonathan Lopatin, four years and close to $400,000 to make “Fringes,” she said. Weiman-Kelman made aliyah in 1976 and is married to Levi Weiman-Kelman, rabbi of Jerusalem’s Kehillat Kol HaNeshama, a Reform congregation.

The idea for the movie “started with a general perception that the boxes of Jewish identity that I grew up with were kind of broken,” said Lopatin, who worked with Weiman-Kelman on an earlier documentary, “Eyes Wide Open,” about people travelling to Israel. Lopatin is a former Goldman Sachs partner who focused on his own Jewish education after stepping off the fast track. He is now a board member the Conservative Movement’s Jewish Theological Seminary and president of the board of Mechon Hadar, an independent egalitarian yeshiva and prayer community on the Upper West Side.

“I was very interested in people who were kind of out of the box. The boundaries of Jewish identity were changing. Really it was that simple,” said Lopatin. “We started talking to people all over the world who might have interesting stories to tell.”

“Fringes” is booked for about two dozen screenings at synagogues, JCCs and in Jewish film festivals including those in Budapest and Bucharest. “In recent weeks the Pew Report has sparked some real interest, given the relevance of our theme,” Lopatin said.

Though the Jews profiled in “Fringes” are different in many ways from most of the those who will see it, there are elements in each of their lives that strike a universal note.

Fernanda Rossi, who is known as “the documentary doctor,” and with whom Weiman-Kelman worked, told her that seeing “Fringes” “made her want to be part of a community. She saw in it how people grow communities in lots of different ways,” Weiman-Kelman said from Trento.

That, in the end, is what lies at the heart of the search for connection of every Jew in “Fringes:” community. Leibish Hundert says in the film, “If I can’t find my community, I have to just create it.”

It is the biggest challenge facing Pablo and Esther on Stoney Lonesome Farm, their organic farm 35 miles west of Washington, D.C. “We have our neighborhood, we have the farm community of small farmers, and we participate in a community oriented around Judaism. One of the things about being isolated Jews is that it’s pretty frustrating being far from the Jewish community. Especially out here on the edge of the countryside, pretty far from the synagogue,” Pablo says in the film. Esther says, “we have community but I don’t think we’re comfortable where we are. That’s the big lack in our life.”

They are in their element at a Hazon Jewish food conference focused on community-supported agriculture, known as CSA, in which customers pay up-front for weekly shares in the produce that a given farm produces.

The film shows Pablo speaking at the Hazon conference. “To be a farmer’s market farm, you make your money on the weekends,” he says. “That’s a problem if you observe Shabbat.” Later, he tells the camera, “Shabbat at Hazon is my favorite Shabbat. It’s very nice to be able to walk to services.”

Not shown in the film is a move that Pablo and Esther have just made, to a farm in Dorset, Vermont, where they will grow vegetables, orchard fruits and have some small livestock as part of a planned artists’ retreat center being run by a Jewish former New Yorker, Pablo said in an interview.

“It’s closer to a synagogue, just four miles away, and closer to an organized Jewish community. That’s part of the factor for sure,” said Pablo. “We’re only a couple of hours now from Isabella Freedman [retreat center], a whole center for the eco-kosher Jewish community. We wanted to make a change and this seemed like a good opportunity. It’s certainly a bonus that we’re not leaving the Jewish community in any way, but are front and center connecting with it.”

In the movie Pablo says, “we are inventing or creating a life that is different from our parents'. But every generation does this. It’s just more obvious in our situation.”

Evan Abramson/Vassar Alumni Quarterly
Debbi Cooper