‘When you think about Israel, what are the two or three things that stick out for you, which define a Jewish state?” Amy Beth Oppenheimer asked her audience at the Barry & Florence Friedberg Jewish Community Center in Oceanside.
One by one, voices called out enthusiastically, “The language!” “Jewish education!” “The right of return!” “Observance of Shabbat!”
As Israel celebrated its 62nd birthday, more than 100 men and women from several South Shore communities assembled at the Oceanside JCC to watch a documentary, “Faces of Israel” and participate in a discussion about the complexities of Israel today, where the distinction between synagogue and state is virtually nonexistent.
“Faces of Israel,” the first film written, directed, edited and translated by 24-year-old Oppenheimer, is a 75-minute interactive documentary, broken into 10 themed chapters, which poses a series of questions on “hot” topics surrounding what it means to live in both a Jewish and democratic state. It answers these questions through interviews with Israelis — ranging from fervently Orthodox Jews, to leaders in the Conservative movement, to openly gay secular students.
As the Long Island audience watched the film in segments, Oppenheimer challenged them to consider questions like: Should the Bible be taught as part of the educational system? Should Arab citizens be forced to learn the same curriculum? Should state- sponsored companies be forced to shut down on Shabbat? Should the Israeli Chief Rabbinate have a hand in every aspect of daily life and authority to regulate marriage? Food? Conversion? Whom are they serving?
These issues are more important today than ever, said Oppenheimer, whose documentary was a two-year labor of love. Since completing the film last year, Oppenheimer has traveled to synagogues, JCCs, high schools, colleges and summer camps throughout the New York metropolitan area, using the documentary as an educational tool to foster dialogue and conversation about some of the most important questions facing Israel and the Jewish people today, without any political agenda. After recently celebrating her 100th program, she faced her first Long Island audience at the Oceanside JCC.
Emotional responses among the guests ranged from frustration and anger to hope.
Blossom Schecker, who attended the program said, “It really got me thinking. They call it a democratic country, but how democratic is it? The Orthodox community is so strong and in such control that if you are Reform or Conservative, you are not recognized by the state. As an independent person, it would be impossible for me to ever live in Israel. It is discouraging because I don’t things are going to change and this is a problem without a solution.”
Mike Schnall was also disturbed by “how one-sided the ultra-Orthodox are.”
“We’ve tried to instill a strong sense of Judaism in our children but we believe in freedom of choice, and they have no give,” he said. “We have dear friends in Israel who had to leave because they are not Orthodox.”
Joan Sider said that although she knew that the Chief Rabbinate was very powerful, “I never realized how unyielding and unbending they were.”
For Oppenheimer, a love of Israel dates back to her first trip there as a young child. Raised in Leonia, N.J., with her parents and two sisters, Oppenheimer was always involved in the Jewish community. As a student at John Hopkins University, pursuing a degree in international relations and Jewish studies, she decided to spend her senior year abroad at Haifa University. Fascinated by the balance of religion and government, Oppenheimer planned to write a paper on the subject, but changed direction.
“I decided that nobody would read it,” she recalled. “But if I could make a film, maybe people would pay attention.”
After buying her first video camera, Oppenheimer reinvented herself as a journalist, walking up to strangers and recording their conversations. The end result was “Faces of Israel,” which cost her between $15,000 and $20,000 to complete and has been endorsed by a wide spectrum of Jewish leaders.
Mort Davis, who attended the recent program, said that it left him hopeful.
“Israel is still a young state and a work in progress,” he said. “The right of return is very important because Jews have a place they can come to with no restrictions. I’m not frightened for Israel because their desire and need to exist is stronger than the forces trying to destroy them.”
Myrna Astor agreed. “The program expressed a variety of attitudes and provoked a lot of thought,” she said. “For me, it brought more questions than answers.”
Oppenheimer hopes to spend the next few years traveling across the country with her husband, Yair Horowitz in their RV, to share her film and continue to stimulate discussions about the many faces of Israel.
She said, “I want to find out what excites the different audiences, and talk about those topics.”
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