|Jewish and Dominican teenagers work together on a theater production at the YM-YWHA of Washington Heights-Inwood.|
Inwood and Washington Heights, in northern Manhattan, boast the typical New York City cocktail of ethnic and religious groups, only more so.
More than half of the residents were born outside of the United States, the highest rate in Manhattan. There are Russian-speaking Jews, German-speaking Jews who have lived there since the 1940s, some Greeks, recent Irish immigrants as well as those who arrived ages ago, and many Spanish speakers from all over the Caribbean. Of the different Latino groups, people from the Dominican Republic, or DR, predominate, making up 70 percent of the Spanish-speaking population.
Most days, the Jewish and Dominican residents of Inwood have little contact with each other. They move in different social circles, their kids go to different schools, they work in different fields. Only one place brings them together – the YM-YWHA of Washington Heights-Inwood.
“Sosua: Make a Better World,” the documentary film to be shown on PBS on December 28 at 2 p.m., focuses on a special project that attempted to bridge the divide between two of those groups. This musical theater project, created by renowned composer and director Liz Swados, brought together 20 teenagers – 10 Jews and 10 Dominicans – to give dramatic life to a little-known historical event that involved both groups. “The power of art brings [together] people from all backgrounds,” said Victoria Neznansky, the Y’s chief program officer, who first conceived of the show. “This project brought these kids together.”
Award-winning filmmakers Peter Miller and Renee Silverman shot their hour-long “making-of” documentary as Ms. Swados and her team auditioned, coached, and directed the 20 teens into first learning about the history of the Dominican city called Sosua, the Holocaust, and the brutality of Dominican strongman Rafael Trujillo, and then turning that knowledge into a musical. We also learn more about several of the teens: John, 17, spends his week at a private school in Princeton on a full scholarship; Jordan is a shy, awkward young man who finds a new sense of self at the Y; and Nomi, 12, is a firecracker who looks even younger than she is. The film documents how Ms. Swados alternately inspires and bullies the teens into doing more than they ever imagined they could. She is a compelling force in the film, willing the teenagers to grow and create, and when she is called away to other projects, the viewer feels the dismay of everyone concerned.
First, the kids learn about a little-known incident involving Jews who found shelter in the DR just before the outbreak of World War II. Trujillo was one of the very few national leaders willing to give desperate European Jews a haven, inviting 100,000 to come to the Dominican Republic. Between 1940 and 1945, about 650 Jews arrived, with the support of the Joint Distribution Committee, and were sent to live in a place called Sosua, on the country’s northern coast.
Hardly an altruist, Trujillo had his own sinister reasons for his offer. He wanted to “whiten” the population of the DR, which shares the island of Hispaniola with Haiti. In fact, he had ordered the massacre of 20,000 Haitians who lived near the border in 1937. Conflict between Haiti and the Dominican Republic continues to this day, with the DR recently passing a law that would strip citizenship rights from people of Haitian ancestry who have spent most of their lives in the DR.
Amazingly, the mostly Austrian and German Jews adapted to an agricultural life and established a successful farming cooperative on the abandoned banana plantation, and the film uses archival photographs to show us their life there. Many of the young men married Dominican women, as Trujillo had hoped, but after the war ended most of the Jews moved to New York or Miami. Some families remained, however, and there are still a synagogue and a Jewish museum in Sosua.
Ms. Neznansky and Ms. Swados sent flyers to local public and private schools to solicit equal numbers of Dominican and Jewish teens. As part of her goal, teaching the values of respect and compromise, Ms. Swados insisted that the teens be treated as professionals and be paid for their work. While the fee was not a large honorarium, the gesture seems to have had the intended effect. The teens researched and wrote their monologues and three songs. Jordan Hoepelman, the shy boy in the cast, discovered that his father was the child of German Jews.
According to YM-YWHA of Washington Heights-Inwood’s executive director, Marty Englisher, the program has had a great impact on its teen-age participants. Three have gone on to the Tisch School of the Arts at NYU, and all have experienced the thrill of performance. They have performed at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in Harlem, as part of the Latino International Theater Festival of New York, and at the United Nations. “Sosua: Make a Better World” premiered at the 2012 Jerusalem Jewish Film Festival and has screened at many film festivals and institutions since then. It recently was acquired for the permanent collection of Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Museum in Jerusalem.