Making cinematic lemonade

Making cinematic lemonade

B’nai Abraham sponsors online film series focusing on social justice

Social action committee co-chairs Roth Ross, left, and Janet Penn of Temple B’nai Abraham  are in the kosher food pantry at Oheb Shalom Congregation in South Orange.
Social action committee co-chairs Roth Ross, left, and Janet Penn of Temple B’nai Abraham are in the kosher food pantry at Oheb Shalom Congregation in South Orange.

It makes sense that if Temple B’nai Abraham were to have a film club, that club’s focus would be social action.

The synagogue is in Livingston now, but it was created and nurtured in Newark by Rabbi Joachim Prinz, the German-born civil rights activist who famously marched next to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Social action is in the community’s DNA.

Like everyone else, when the pandemic struck, the shul’s leaders scrambled to find ways to keep members engaged; they knew that isolation was damaging but physical distancing was necessary. That’s when the shul’s longtime understanding of itself — its bones, in a way — surfaced.

Ruth Ross of West Orange and her friend, Janet O. Penn of Livingston, were the heads of the shul’s social action committee. They realized that a shared experienced, even online, can be powerful. They knew that companies like Netflix were booming because just about anyone stuck at home can watch a movie.

“So Janet said, ‘Why don’t we show movies for families?’ and I said that would be a great idea,” Ms. Ross said. “I was going to pick out stories that families could watch with their kids, and I was talking with the rabbi” — that’s David Vaisberg — “and he said ‘Let’s have a film series.’ And I said let’s raise social consciousness through cinema. And he said, ‘Perfect!’

“If you have lemons, make lemonade,” Ms. Ross said.

Ms. Ross is a long-time English teacher; she’s retired now, after 34 years, many of them at Chatham High School, but the instinct to teach through words and images is a powerful one. That instinct came through. And that’s how the shul’s pandemic series, “Raising Social Consciousness Through Film: A Cinema Series Addressing Moral Issues,” began.

If you’re a real teacher, you’re a teacher for life. Your instinct to use the tools around you to help make sense of the world, both for yourself and for other people, remain. Ms. Ross and Ms. Penn — retired from a career in publishing, web design, and marketing — researched, found documentaries — almost all of them streaming on Netflix, and so readily available to just about anyone —and scheduled a discussion on one film every two weeks. Participants were asked to watch the movie first, and then show up on Zoom. Ms. Ross lead the discussion, which filtered the film’s message through a Jewish lens. “We did it over the summer, and when we announced that this was the last film, a groan went up.” They could hear it. “So after the holidays, I got back to Rabbi Vaisberg, and we embarked on a five-film series.” The first series drew about 20 screens; the second one nearly doubled that number. It conquered distance — snowbirds wintering in Florida rejoined their synagogue friends online. It wasn’t open only to members — it was advertised at the shul, but drew JCC members as well.

And most important, it opened minds.

Ms. Ross said that the films she showed included “The 13th,” about mass incarceration, and “American Factory,” about a Chinese company that bought an American auto-parts plant and rehired laid-of workers. It didn’t go well. “We found that the ways that the Chinese viewed the American workers wasn’t very complimentary,” Ms. Ross said. The film explored the two cultures’ work ethics; “it was about a collision in cultures that none of us had known anything about.” Another film was “Crip Camp,” about disability activists, the summer camp that nurtured them, and how their work, decades later, helped create the Americans with Disabilities Act. It’s got yichus — it’s executive producers are Michelle and Barack Obama. “I had a dear, beloved aunt who had polio in 1924,” Ms. Ross said. “In the camp, there was a hierarchy, and polio was the top of it.” Not that the distinction made life particularly easy. “I wish that my aunt had been around for the ADA,” she added.

In the next series, a movie called “The Bleeding Edge” looks at the medical device industry, an area that most of us have thought about more or less never. “Your hair stands on end when you learn about it,” Ms. Ross said.

The film that’s stuck with her most, though, is “A Secret Love,” about two women who lived together for 65 1/2 years at the time it was filmed; by the time one of them died, they’d been together for 70. They both fended off offers to help them find men to marry; they never admitted the truth of their relationship, but their love for each other was palpable. “It was filmed over five or six years, and we watched them age over that time,” Ms. Ross said. “We saw the love on their faces.

“We felt like we knew these two women — and one of them grew up in Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan.” In other words, there wasn’t much in common, on the surface, between the audience and the film’s subjects, but that didn’t matter. Or below the surface, it just wasn’t true.

Most of the B’nai Abraham audience is what Ms. Ross calls “of a certain age,” so the discussion was pointed. “Most of us grew up in an era when gays were closeted,” Ms. Ross said. “It was only through our children, and particularly through our grandchildren, that those us who might have been uncomfortable have been changed. So the discussion of “A Secret Love” really brought a discussion of something that might have made us uncomfortable before.”

Sometimes the first change a social action campaign has to make is in the campaigners.

The social action film series continues through the winter; register at

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