Faces of Amy

Written by Abigail Klein Leichman
Published: 22 February 2013

Amy Beth Oppenheimer has spent three years living out of a recreational vehicle, showing her 2009 documentary “Faces of Israel: A Discussion About Marriage, State, and Religion in the Jewish Homeland” in a wide variety of Jewish settings, and leading guided discussions about the topics raised in the film.

Now Oppenheimer, who grew up in Leonia, will be able to drive her audiovisual educational program to more remote communities, thanks to Natan Grants for Roi Entrepreneurs. Roi is a new grant-making partnership supporting members of the global Jewish innovators network created by philanthropist Lynn Schusterman.

Oppenheimer, 27, was named one of four recipients of the inaugural $37,000 grant. Her application was chosen from a field of 45 proposals submitted by Roi Community members in 10 countries. She will use her share of the grant to widen the scope of audiences for topical discussions sparked by the personal interviews in the film: Jewish identity, Israel as a Jewish state, religious pluralism and civil liberties in Israel, the role of the Israeli chief rabbinate in marriage and conversion, Israeli cultural trends, and more.

“The film is not about religion-and-state issues so much as it is a springboard for conversations about these issues,” Oppenheimer told the Jewish Standard in a Skype interview from her temporary home base of Austin, Texas. “Because the footage is divided into 10 chapters, you can do a program about any of these categories.”

A graduate of the Moriah School of Englewood, the Frisch School of Paramus, and Johns Hopkins University as an international relations major and Jewish studies minor, Oppenheimer made “Faces of Israel” (http://facesthemovie.com) during a year abroad at the University of Haifa.

She not only interviewed a broad spectrum of Israeli citizens – from charedim to gay men and lesbians — but also managed to gain entrée to Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi Yonah Metzger and Rabbi Yitzchak Peretz, head of the office of the chief Sephardi rabbi.

She forged ahead without any formal training in film. “Rather than fancying myself as a filmmaker, I see myself as a social innovator and community educator,” Oppenheimer said. Creating a niche for herself, she used the interviews as the basis of a curriculum with activities and constantly updated briefings on each topic.

She’s presented her program nearly 250 times — for instance, to 9-year-olds in a Conservative synagogue in Chicago, to rabbinical students at the Ziegler School at the University of Judaism in Los Angeles, to Yeshiva University’s Israel Club, to campus Hillel houses, and even to a gathering in Bozeman, Montana. She prides herself on having won endorsements from Reform, Conservative, and Orthodox rabbis.

“I wanted to have a meaningful way to gather Jews of different streams in the same room for meaningful conversations about Israel, rather than focusing on controversy and conflict or eating falafel,” she said. “Different types of congregations sometimes co-sponsor my presentation and come together, often for the first time outside of an occasion like a communal Purim party.”

This dovetails well with the mission of the Natan Fund, an organization that provides early-stage funding for creative approaches to challenges facing the Jewish people and Israel, focusing on new access points for younger Jews who are less engaged with existing communal frameworks.

The money will allow Oppenheimer to offer the program in places that cannot afford to pay her. “I’m very environmentally conscious, but gas in an RV costs a lot,” she said with a laugh, “so I usually visit congregations with a budget for programming.”

The Bozeman presentation — perhaps Montana’s first-ever Israel program — grew out of her visit to nearby Yellowstone National Park. “I thought perhaps there were Jewish communities around Bozeman,” she said, and a little nosing around validated her hunch. About 35 people came out to hear her.

“I realized there is a need to bring an energizing Jewish spirit to a lot of isolated communities, which are further marginalized by a lack of educational programs,” Oppenheimer said. “I’ve been in touch with rabbis in small communities who might be interested, and maybe I’ll stay in each for a few days — not just present the film and leave — to see if I can bring a little of my energy there and make it stick.”

The project will be limited to the early summer. “I will try to structure it to get as much as possible out of the grant, doing whatever I can do to maximize the impact of my presence through multiple programming, follow-up, and getting these communities access to educational resources,” she said.

First, she plans a visit back home in March to see her parents, Elaine and Marc, and her grandmother, Thea Oppenheimer, who lives in Fort Lee. Toward the end of the summer, she is thinking of spending three months in Jerusalem, “maybe working with friends on my next educational project.”

A film, perhaps? That’s possible, she said, only this time she wouldn’t film, edit, translate, and market it by herself. “If I did it again, I’d mobilize a small but powerful group of people to help me.”