Latrobe, Pennsylvania. Dothan, Alabama. Butte, Montana. Laredo, Texas.
These aren't names synonymous with a large Jewish presence. In fact, many would be surprised that there actually is Jewish life in those places.
The documentary There are Jews Here dispels the concept that there are only urban American Jews. It focuses on a few of the one million American Jews in rural areas and small towns struggling to practice the faith. Tackling topics like assimilation and migration, the film shows people grappling with how to preserve the legacy of those who came before them and also with how to revive community.
Filmmaker Brad Lichtenstein explains that he got the idea for the film from a man named Mike Levin who had funded his first film 22 years ago, his last Jewish film.
"[Levin] was supporting the Jewish Community Legacy Project which was helping small communities that were closing do it responsibly," he describes, "and he called me up and said, 'there are all these fascinating stories I'm learning about these small communities all over America that are reaching the end of their lives, and do you think there might be a film there?'"
Lichtenstein did see the potential there, and he and producer and co-director Morgan Johnson traveled around the country to unearth the stories of these communities.
"As a filmmaker, [I'm always interested in] finding a very intimate way...to tell a big story," he says. "So, it's a big story about Jewish communities dwindling, and even a bigger story about religious communities dwindling in America. But the way we tell it is so up close and intimate."
The film has scenes like a woman telling her mother that she and her husband are moving from Los Angeles to Alabama, and her mother's less than happy reaction. In a different community, it captures an elderly man watching "the last boxes being taken out of the synagogue as it's being packed up," Lichtenstein describes. The movie portrays the lingering misunderstanding between a Jewish convert named Susie, who married the small local Jewish congregation's president, and her devout Catholic family, in Laredo. And yet, the subjects of the film all go to great lengths to tough it out to keep their Judaism kindled.
Lichtenstein, who himself moved from the larger Jewish community of New York City to Milwaukee, has taken to heart the words of a mentor who once told him, "look, make community where you are."
"I think that's kind of also the message of There are Jews Here," he says.
The documentary will air on PBS stations around the country this coming week. You can see it in Milwaukee Tuesday evening at 8 p.m. on the Milwaukee PBS World channel (36.2).
Editor's note: This interview originally aired September 26, 2016 during the film's run in the Milwaukee Film Festival.