Documenting slow decline of a vanishing Latrobe congregation
At the beginning of 2013, documentarian Brad Lichtenstein, president of 371 Productions and winner of two Alfred I. duPont-Columbia University Awards from Columbia’s School of Journalism, was looking for a new project when he was approached by one of his main funders, Mike Leven.
Leven was a supporter of an organization called the Jewish Community Legacy Project (JCLP). Funded by several Jewish federations in the country — including the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh — the organization was founded to help Jewish communities that “were once thriving but are now diminished and on the edge of extinction.” Lichtenstein remembered that Leven “asked if I might think there could be a film in one of these communities.” Lichtenstein was sure that there was.
And so began the search to choose the right communities to profile: The JCLP supported 42 different communities across the United States, but the ones Lichtenstein filmed would have to be just right. Lichtenstein and his co-director, Morgan Elise Johnson, spoke to “between 15 and 20 communities” and ended up visiting “eight or nine” of those. He remembered trips to Niagara, N.Y., Steubenville, Ohio and Marian, Ind.
Though all the communities were interesting, said Lichtenstein, he and Johnson were looking for something in particular: communities that had “stories that you can follow and really interesting people who are trying to change things.” The places they chose would need to “highlight the issues that small communities face,” like a dwindling congregation, poor cemetery upkeep and a lack of funding.
In the end, Lichtenstein and Johnson selected four communities: Butte, Mont., Laredo, Texas, Dothan, Ala., and Latrobe, Pa., about an hour outside of Pittsburgh. All of the communities except for Dothan were supported by the JCLP, though Dothan has been well known since 2008, when local entrepreneur Larry Blumberg offered up to $50,000 to Jewish families willing to relocate to the town. These communities, and their struggle to continue to exist, are chronicled in the new documentary by 371 Productions, “There Are Jews Here.”
Of all the communities showcased in the documentary, Latrobe’s Beth Israel Congregation was in the direst state. In fact, said Mickey Radman, a local resident, the first day the documentary crew spent filming in Latrobe was the same day as the congregation’s board meeting over whether it should “dissolve the congregation” and close the synagogue for good. Radman, who has lived in Latrobe since 1958, “started out as a congregant” but quickly became involved, serving at different times as treasurer, secretary, president and a board member. He also led services from time to time, as the synagogue had no official rabbi.
When Radman first arrived in Latrobe, there was “a very nice-sized congregation, close to 65 or 70 families here,” he said. There was “a very active Sisterhood,” a Hebrew school and a Sunday school and lots of fundraisers and community events. Over time though, as the older members passed away and the children left for college and careers, the Jewish population dwindled.
Brian Balk, who grew up in Latrobe and now lives in Pittsburgh, went to the synagogue every week for services and continued to do so even after he’d moved away. Balk, too, remembered the busy community of his childhood and also the slow shrinking of what had once been a reasonably thriving Jewish area.
“We left the town, but we never really left the shul,” said Balk, who drove in with his parents, wife and daughters for Shabbat services every week.
Lichtenstein said that he was aware of the congregation’s struggles when they chose to film there.
“It was a pretty conscious choice to be in Latrobe,” he said.
He, Johnson and the rest of the crew knew that the synagogue would close imminently. “We knew, maybe before Mickey, in a way,” said Lichtenstein. “Or at least, we accepted it before Mickey.”
Though Radman said modestly that he was only chosen as one of the subjects because congregation president “Mark Kessler worked all day and I was available,” both Lichtenstein and Balk disagree. Balk said that Radman “kept the synagogue alive,” and for Lichtenstein, “it was really obvious that Mickey was the person that was holding the community together.”
Watching the slow demise of their synagogue was hard for Radman and Balk.
There was a strong sense that “the end was near,” said Balk. “When you have a small congregation, it’s not just a congregation. It’s a family.”
For his part, Radman said the decision to close the synagogue was “one of the hardest decisions I’ve ever had to personally make. Everyone that sat around that table felt that it was one of their life-changing experiences. And it was.”
It wasn’t easy for Lichtenstein either, who said that, as a Jew himself, he couldn’t be dispassionate. There was a strong sense of “sadness to see it go,” as well as “admiration for Mickey’s tenacity and perseverance.”
Radman and Balk both now pray at Congregation Emanu-El Israel in nearby Greensburg, a community also supported by the JCLP. Balk said that he attends services there once or twice a month — when he isn’t praying at Congregation Beth Shalom — and Radman and his wife are slowly trying to adjust to the change.
“It’s my place of worship,” he said, “but it’s not my original home. I miss my shul.”
Beth Israel Congregation sold its Torah scrolls to the Jewish Community Center of Long Beach Island, N.J. Radman and his wife drove the scrolls to their new home, where there was a ceremony on the beach to welcome the Torahs to the community.
“I got all choked up,” said Radman. “It was really heartwarming to see how they welcomed us and our Torahs.”
On the stage inside the sanctuary, Radman made a short speech, telling the congregation how much he appreciated their kindness.
“I thanked them for giving our Torahs a good home,” he recalled.
On the JCLP website, next to Latrobe’s name is a small star. At the bottom of the list of legacy communities is a small note. “* Denotes process completed.” But with the Jews of Latrobe continuing to worship and their Torahs beginning a new tenure in a bustling Jewish community, some might say that it’s just beginning.
“There Are Jews Here” will debut at the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival on July 30 and will be distributed by 7th Art Releasing, with plans for a national broadcast in 2017.
Masha Shollar can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.