Udi Drukker walks through the San Antonio JCC with the rabbi as his children marvel at the size of main hall. Udi’s come to San Antonio from Laredo, Texas, to try and determine if it might finally be time to leave the city’s ever-shrinking Jewish community (of about ~130) for greener pastures. As he walks by Jewish resource after resource that they could only dream of back home, the tension is starkly visible on Udi’s face. You can see him thinking: Should I leave Laredo, a minuscule, struggling Jewish community, and head somewhere with more supportive Jewish infrastructure?
For most practitioners of Jewish geography, Laredo is off the map, somewhere in the vast expanse between Sherman Oaks and Scarsdale. But in Brad Lichtenstein’s There Are Jews Here, a new documentary on the Jewish film festival circuit, the focus is on four Jewish communities that are fighting to stay alive: Laredo, Texas; Latrobe, Pennsylvania; Butte, Montana; and Dothan, Alabama. For these communities, aging congregants and dwindling interest aren’t just peripheral issues—they’re existential threats.
In a way, these cities become little Anatevkas defining themselves in contrast with big city life somewhere else—at once proud of their resilience but envious of the ease with which larger communities can operate. But rather than be rooted out by some evil force, the only thing that’s squeezing them out is the march of time. Mickey Waldman jokes that at 82, he’s “one of the young ones” in the Latrobe congregation, but when it comes time to sell the building that the shul is housed in, he seems to take it harder than anyone.
Across four story lines, There Are Jews Here finds moments of tenderness in that struggle, as is rightly just as interested in how those communities live as it is in how they may die. There’s Nancy Oyer, president of the Butte congregation, fighting back tears as her migraines keep her from leading her handful of friends and neighbors in her typically guitar-heavy service. There are three generations of the Balk family, who drive 45 minutes into Latrobe every Saturday morning, making up 6 of the 10 needed for a minyan. And of course, there’s Udi’s wife, Susie, who converted when she married but still feels like a bit of an outsider; when the family does havdalah with Udi’s parents, she can only hum as the rest sing the prayers.
For some of these communities, their Jews seem to be perfectly suited to outsider status; shacharit attire in Butte tends towards jeans and ballcaps, and at a regional Hadassah meeting, there’s this gem from a Billlings congregation president: “If I was in a suburb of Philadelphia, I’d never be president of congregation, I’d be rebelling against the president of a congregation.” Perhaps the most interesting of the four storylines is that of the Los Angeles family that decides to move to Dothan. Local businessman Larry Blumberg has offered $50,000 to any Jewish family that moves to the area. Tantalized by the offer and the prospect of a tight-knit community, the Arenson’s accept, and seem to be happier for it. The Blumberg offer creates an entirely separate conversation that could be its own movie.
There are glimmers of hope, however small. The Balk family watches as their eldest daughter has the final bat mitzvah in their little synagogue; though the building will be gone, the memory of it will remain with her and with an archivist who comes by to preserve as well (which leads into an expertly done montage of photos and a video of happier, better attended days). And in the closing scene of the film, the Latrobe Torah is joyfully celebrated at a Jersey Shore ceremony.
There Are Jews Here will have its New York premiere on January 12 at the American Jewish Historical Society.
Jesse Bernstein is a former Intern at Tablet.