By Dina Rabhan and Micah Smith
With people across America and the world uniting to demand racial equality and justice, the Jewish world remains divided as parts of our community struggle with the question of whether we should be involved and, if so, how.
At a nonprofit Jewish media company, this question is especially pronounced.
When you’re in the media business, you know that what you produce has the power to change how people experience the world around them. We may not want to admit it, but our realities are informed by the media we consume. At OpenDor Media (formerly Jerusalem U) this is what drives us to create films that will elicit deep feelings that help us reflect on ourselves and our place in society.
Nearly two years ago, we underwent a full strategic overhaul and planned to move forward film projects that reflected our new vision for creating cinema that will be an agent of important social change in our community.
In seeking stories to deliver this mission, we discovered the amazing true story of the relationship between renowned African American artist, John Biggers, and Jewish refugee from Nazi-occupied Austria, Viktor Lowenfeld. Biggers, a student at an all-Black vocational college in the segregated South planned to become a plumber until he took an art class with Viktor Lowenfeld. Lowenfeld had fled Europe to Harvard University, but then took the unusual step of going to the Hampton Institute to teach art. Viktor eventually became the curator of the African Art Museum at Hampton and encouraged his students to find themselves and their voice by exploring the heritage from which they had been cut off. This theme of connecting to your roots to build a modern identity became a critical part of Biggers’s work, and one that also speaks to our Jewish community.
The relevance of this story is clear. This film and educational project will explore the fundamental bonds between the Jewish and black communities and increase intercommunity dialogue to shatter stereotypes and misconceptions that abound on all sides. Too often, the two sides look at each other with suspicion and misunderstanding, especially when it comes to the subject of Israel. This film and education project will help us begin taking down the barriers and make “the other” into someone familiar so the healing can begin on all sides.
Our team has been excited about the project since film development began in earnest in December 2018.
We quickly realized that for the Biggers/Lowenfeld film and education project to succeed we would need to include voices from the Black community and brought Avril Speaks and Desha Dauchan onto the project. Avril is a former film professor at Howard University and an award-winning producer and director. Desha is a Howard University alumna, a graduate of UCLA Film School and an award-winning director. Her work has appeared at the Cannes Film Festival and the Sundance Film Festival. In an industry where women and people of color struggle for representation, we were honored to collaborate with these incredible Black women.
What emerged from the collaboration was a powerful story with critical messages for both the Jewish and African American communities. We aren’t just able to strengthen the Jewish community by advancing cross-cultural dialogue. We are able to strengthen our community and the Black community while building cross-cultural dialogue through a single piece of media.
We funded the early stage development of the Biggers/Lowenfeld project and in the fall of 2019, we set out to secure philanthropic investments to allow us to continue the project.
We faced challenges.
While everyone we spoke to agreed that the story is interesting, several wondered why we would prioritize this project over other worthy educational projects. Why should they invest in a film addressing the African American experience? Should a film like this be a priority for the Jewish philanthropic community?
A few investors offered seed funding and were enthusiastic about the worthiness and timeliness of the project. Their encouragement validated our thinking and drove our motivation to secure the remaining majority of funding.
Our advisory board began to fill with African American academics, board members of the NAACP, and Black politicians who agreed with the need for a film that focuses on bringing our communities together. Yet it was in the Jewish community that we began to hit a wall. Our community has powerful systems in order to preserve and strengthen our people, but this project seemed to fall outside the gears of that well oiled machine.
The slow process of securing funding and the pandemic led us to pause the project with a commitment to resume January 2021.
Today, the cultural momentum has shifted dramatically. We no longer have a choice. We must address critical issues about race, justice, and the Black-Jewish relationship. We are ready for you to join us in telling this critical story and to make a difference.
We are hopeful that the Jewish community’s plethora of recent statements about committing to listen, learn and take action will breathe new life into this film and education project and allow us to facilitate deep learning, reflection and conversations.
As we learn from Rabbi Tarfon in Ethics of Our Fathers, it is not our responsibility to finish the work of perfecting the world, but we are not free to desist from it either.
Dina Rabhan is CEO at OpenDor Media.
Micah Smith is SVP, Film at OpenDor Media.