It’s easy to look at Philadelphia’s past through the lens of the broader scope of American history.
We’re surrounded by landmarks that tell stories — the Liberty Bell, Independence Hall and homes of leading figures like Betsy Ross, to name a few.
But there are other ways to tell the story of the city, specifically through the eyes of a specific group of people, such as Italians or African-Americans or Catholics — or, former mayoral contender and current documentary filmmaker Sam Katz likes to point out, Jews.
So that’s what Katz, executive producer and founder of History Making Productions, is setting out to do. He’s already tackled one story with Urban Trinity: The Story of Catholic Philadelphia, which premiered in 2015.
Now, he’s starting work on Journey: The Jewish Philadelphia Story, which eventually will become a 75- to 80-minute documentary covering various pieces of the city’s Jewish history.
He’s explored other parts of Philadelphia history in past and upcoming films and series, such as Philadelphia: The Great Experiment, a 14-episode series that presents the city’s history from 1600-1995; The Daring Women of Philadelphia, which will be released this summer; and others telling stories of protesters fighting for the desegregation of Girard College in the ’60s or Philadelphia’s relationship with movies and entrepreneurs who created the motion picture industry.
For him, Journey is not only a personal project, but an educational opportunity.
“I want the film to be a stimulator of conversation about the Jewish future in Philadelphia,” said Katz, a city native and Germantown Jewish Centre member who ran for mayor three times. “I always think it’s very hard to have any sense about where you’re going if you have no sense about where you’ve been. I think for the most part, Jewish Philadelphians have very little understanding and appreciation of their local historical past.”
The film, which has a budget of $1.01 million that Katz has already started fundraising for — he’s raised nearly $70,000 so far — will be divided into five parts that thread the city’s past and present from the 1700s to today.
“On a chronological level, we have stories from every important period of Philadelphia Jewish history,” Katz noted, though the outline may change.
The first part will introduce the earliest Jewish settlers in Philadelphia, who served as the capital for various industries from maritime to finance before being overpowered by cities like Baltimore and New York, and the foundation of the city’s Jewish life.
It introduces the earliest synagogues, like Mikveh Israel and Rodeph Shalom, and the roles of American Jewish revolutionaries during the nation’s beginnings.
The second part will focus on the 19th century and key figures like Rebecca Gratz and Isaac Leeser and the creation of Jewish institutions — such as Hebrew Sunday school.
“When Rebecca Gratz decides to create the first Hebrew school for Sundays, she’s copying the Christian model,” Katz said, as the city was largely Protestant at that time. A rabbi told Katz she became the most hated woman in the Jewish world because as a result of her invention, kids had to go to a Hebrew school, he laughed.
The third section looks heavily at the role of immigration and the influx of Russian citizens to communities like Northeast Philadelphia and Philly’s prominent role in the Free Soviet Jewry Movement. It will also feature interviews with Russian Jews and their descendants.
A fourth part will head into the civil rights movement and tackle white flight and the Jewish community’s — Mount Airy, in particular — response to that. It will look at the multiracial civil rights coalition that formed — and fell apart — after the New Deal. The section takes a particular look at the communities of Mount Airy and Wynnefield, and with the latter, Har Zion’s move to Penn Valley.
The final part heads into present-day Lower Merion and the emergence of a new Jewish community with a burgeoning Orthodox presence following the Wynnefield community’s move into the suburbs.
“All the stuff taking place there — you wouldn’t be surprised to see that in Williamsburg,” Katz noted. “In Philadelphia, that’s quite a phenomenon. … I want to end the story with a really positive takeout, and through the prism of Lower Merion I think we will do that.”
Of course, these are condensed summaries of what each section will entail, and the documentary — which Katz aims to have ready for distribution by October 2019 — will be supported throughout by commentaries and interviews with an impressive roster of historians and scholars.
Rabbi Lance Sussman, for instance, began researching pre-Civil War Philadelphia Jewish history in rabbinic school and later wrote his doctoral dissertation — and a published biography — on Isaac Leeser.
When Katz approached him about Journey, for which Sussman became co-producer, Sussman was happy to join.
“It’s a great story in several respects; it’s really the cutting edge of the American Jewish experience in so many different ways,” said the senior rabbi of Reform Congregation Keneseth Israel. “You really have to understand Philadelphia to understand Jewish life in America.
“It’s going to be a thrilling and proud experience for the Philadelphia Jewish community and beyond.”
For Katz, developing the story structure — as well as unplanned stories he will learn along the way — will be a chance to examine how the city has played a role in national Jewish history.
“Nothing about the accomplishments of the Philadelphia Jewish community throughout history surprised me because I’ve always been impressed with the vibrancy, and despite all of the contentiousness that occurs in any Jewish community, how united it can get to be around a lot of things,” he said.
“I’ve always thought that Philadelphia had a really impressive Jewish community and that notion has been reinforced by an understanding of our history — or beginning of an understanding of our history,” he amended. “I will know a lot more about our history as will our viewers when we finish this film.”
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