Trembling Before G-d: Turning A Movie Into A Movement

We as filmmakers, more than ever, must become as creative and strategic in our distribution, outreach, funding, audience engagement, and evaluation as we are in our filmmaking.
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We as filmmakers, more than ever, must become as creative and strategic in our distribution, outreach, funding, audience engagement, and evaluation as we are in our filmmaking. We are living in an incredible era of innovation with many exciting new possibilities, philanthropies, platforms and ideas for media and change campaigns -- from the Million Kids campaign of Oscar-shortlisted Bully to the tough Middle East peacebuilding work of Budrus and Just Vision to the impact Invisible War has had in the past year to stop rape in the U.S. military -- with an estimated 10% of the U.S. military having seen the film. These films have created a tipping point on an issue and are moving millions. They are the latest in a tradition and a history that is not often known.

As The Sundance Film Festival approaches, I look back on the world premiere of my film, Trembling Before G-d, at Sundance, and the decade-plus of change work we launched since.

Trembling Before G-d shatters assumptions about faith, sexuality, and religious fundamentalism. Built around intimately-told personal stories of Hasidic and Orthodox Jews who are gay or lesbian, the film portrays a group of people who face a profound dilemma -- how to reconcile their passionate love of Judaism and the Divine with the drastic Biblical prohibitions that forbid homosexuality. As the film unfolds, we meet a range of complex individuals -- some hidden, some out -- from the world's first openly gay Orthodox rabbi to closeted, married Hasidic gays and lesbians to those abandoned by religious families to Orthodox lesbian high-school sweethearts. Many have been tragically rejected and their pain is raw, yet with irony, humor, and resilience, they love, care, struggle, and debate with a thousands-year old tradition.

Faiths in the 21st century -- Anglicans, Episcopalians, Methodists -- are all deeply struggling with gender and sexuality, but with Trembling Before G-d, for the first time, this issue became a live, public debate in Orthodox Jewish circles, and the film was and is both witness and catalyst to this historic moment. What emerged is a loving and fearless testament to faith and survival and the universal struggle to belong.

An Orthodox female friend of mine showed the film to her fiancée. He watched it and turned to her afterwards and said, "I can't marry you. I'm gay." Religious parents who had disowned their gay or lesbian children started speaking to them after seeing the film. Orthodox rabbis who had blasted gay people from the pulpit, were confronted with the staggering pain of so many and made 180 degree turns away from certainty and condemnation and said, "I don't know what to do."

There was pushback. In Baltimore, Orthodox Jews and Evangelical Christians together protested the film when it opened for the theatrical release at The Charles Theater. Screenings were cancelled by the Jewish establishment in Mexico City, in South Africa. The ultra-Orthodox organization, Agudas Israel, criticized the film calling it "Dissembling Before G-d."

But the key to this work was in-person dialogue. I conducted over 800 Trembling Before G-d screenings and face-to-face discussions around the world -- often with Rabbi Steve Greenberg, the first openly gay Orthodox rabbi. We traveled across the U.S., Israel, UK, Canada, Argentina, Brazil, Germany, Ukraine, Mexico, Holland, Australia, South Africa, Poland, Czech Republic, Uruguay, and Hungary. Over 200,000 people participated in these live programs and an estimated 9 million people have seen the film.

With Orthodox therapist Naomi Mark, Dr. Jack Drescher, and Shlomo Ashkinazy, we organized the first-ever Orthodox Mental Health Conference on Homosexuality. We flew in fifty Orthodox and Hasidic/ultra-Orthodox mental health professionals from sixteen North American cities to NYC. For many of the participants, this was the first time that they had an opportunity to discuss therapeutic issues directly with an Orthodox gay person. As many took a great risk to attend, the conference and those who attended was kept secret. They returned to their communities to create gay-affirmative therapy practices.

In Israel, Rabbi Greenberg, Tanya Zion, and I Iaunched the Israel Outreach Project. To prepare for the mainstream Israeli television broadcast of Trembling on Keshet/Channel Two, we trained 11 facilitators in Jerusalem who conducted private screenings and post-screening dialogues in pairs with over 2,000 principals, teachers, superintendents, rabbis, school counselors and youth workers throughout the nation and in the secular and Orthodox school system. The response dramatically exceeded their expectations and was truly a groundbreaking accomplishment in a system where silence has been the rule.

We organized hundreds of screenings in synagogues, Jewish communal organizations, film festivals, cinemas, and Hillels at universities. Yeshiva Chovevei Torah (YCT), the open Orthodox seminary for a new generation of Orthodox rabbis, set up as an alternative to the flagship Yeshiva University, included Trembling Before G-d in their pastoral training. After the Baltimore protests, Trembling was invited a year later to screen for Baltimore's first Orthodox synagogue screening at Beth Tfiloh Congregation. More and more Orthodox synagogues now in the U.S., Canada, and UK have invited Trembling Before G-d to screen in the synagogues. In fact, this week, YCT and the Orthodox Lincoln Square Synagogue on New York's Upper West Side, are featuring a program called "Orthodox & Gay: At School, At Shul & At Home" including Orthodox gay people telling their stories -- totally groundbreaking.

Even the flagship Yeshiva University has been moved. A week after Trembling Before G-d opened at Film Forum, a group of Orthodox and ex-Orthodox gay and lesbian teenagers and 21+ year-olds founded a new organization that thrives today -- JQY -- Jewish Queer Youth. JQY held organized a panel discussion at Yeshiva University Wurzweiler's School of Social Work sharing their struggles as young gay and lesbian observant Jews. In 2009, the Wurzweiler School and Yeshiva University's year-old Tolerance Club organized a standing-room-only public forum called "Being Gay in the Modern Orthodox World." An estimated 600 to 800 people attended with more than 100 turned away for lack of space. The event featured gay YU students and alumni. Rabbi Yosef Blau, mashgiach ruchani (spiritual adviser) at the school's Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary, served as moderator of the program. It was the first time a flagship Orthodox institution held a public forum on the issue.

In July 2010, another landmark event occurred. A "Statement of Principles on the Place of Jews with a Homosexual Orientation in Our Community" was published and now signed by over 200 Orthodox rabbis and educators. While it affirmed that "all male and female same-sex sexual interactions are prohibited," it included three advances for Orthodox religious leadership.

One, "Embarrassing, harassing or demeaning someone with a homosexual orientation or same-sex attraction is a violation of Torah prohibitions that embody the deepest values of Judaism."

Two, with many Orthodox backing reparative therapy designed to change homosexuals to heterosexuals, the Statement reads: "we affirm the religious right of those with a homosexual orientation to reject therapeutic approaches they reasonably see as useless or dangerous."

And three, with many Hasidic or Orthodox gays or lesbians forced or pressured to marry, and then not informing their spouses of their sexual orientation, the Statement reads: "Jews who have an exclusively homosexual orientation should, under most circumstances, not be encouraged to marry someone of the other gender, as this can lead to great tragedy, unrequited love, shame, dishonesty and ruined lives. They should be directed to contribute to Jewish and general society in other meaningful ways. Any such person who is planning to marry someone of the opposite gender is halakhically and ethically required to fully inform his or her potential spouse of their sexual orientation." Rabbis continue to sign the Statement.

In December, The Southern Poverty Law Center filed a civil lawsuit on behalf of three members of JQY accusing JONAH (Jews Organizing New Alternatives to Healing) with consumer fraud for claiming to convert gay people to straight.

It was not only the Orthodox community that was powerfully affected through this work. At the 2002 Conservative Rabbinic Conference at the movement's 100th Anniversary, I began organizing efforts with a special screening of the film to target the movement's top leaders. After years of Trembling Before G-d screenings and intense discussion and debate, the conservative movement made a bold and historic policy change in 2006: legalizing the ordination of gay and lesbian rabbis and the ability to perform same-sex unions. In 2012, the movement fully endorsed same-sex marriage in Jewish law.

Trembling Before G-d has gone way beyond what any of us ever dreamed or imagined and the work with the film to impact social change continues. Orthodox GLBT organizations are thriving -- JQY, Eshel, GLYDSA, Bat-Kol, Havruta and Temicha for Orthodox parents of GLBT people. And the struggle of films to make change is ongoing especially on the issues of faith and sexuality in the 21st century. In the past year, Macky Alston has taken his film, Love Free or Die, about Bishop Gene Robinson, to churches across the country. And this tradition will be carried on by God Loves Uganda, premiering at Sundance this month, about the evangelical movement in Uganda's attempt to eliminate "sexual sin" and convert Ugandans to fundamentalist Christianity. The fight and the impact continues...

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