For “the two Rachels” — as Rachel Fisher and Rachel Pasternak are known by friends and colleagues — last weekend’s screening of their new documentary about legendary Newark rabbi Joachim Prinz was a homecoming of sorts.
A capacity crowd of around 500 gathered Nov. 2 at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center in Newark for the official American premiere of their film, Joachim Prinz: I Shall Not Be Silent.
The audience included not just four of Prinz’s children but dozens of congregants who remembered the anti-Nazi activist, civil rights icon, and fiery leader of Temple B’nai Abraham in both its Newark and Livingston incarnations.
All through the one-hour film, waves of laughter greeted familiar quotes — like Prinz’s comment that to be a successful congregational leader “you must love your congregants, but not necessarily like them.”
“That’s just how he was,” said one woman who asked not to be named. “I remember listening to his sermons as a child and being absolutely riveted by his words. He was so powerful.”
The production was six years in the making. “When you feel this passionate about a subject, time isn’t an issue,” said Pasternak. “You keep going until it’s done.”
The screening was presented by NJPAC and the NJ Jewish Film Festival. The film will be shown again in April as part of the festival’s regular schedule. Other partners in the event included the NJ Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Commemorative Commission, the Newark Museum’s Newark Black Film Festival, and the Rutgers Institute of Ethnicity, Culture, and the Modern Experience.
Pasternak and Fisher, her partner in the R Squared production company, live in Maplewood. A former NJ Jewish News writer, Pasternak began her research on Prinz long before the film idea coalesced. She chose to write about him as part of her master’s degree in Jewish studies at the Jewish Theological Seminary, compiling one of the first academic studies ever done on his life and career.
The film was hailed by audiences at screenings in Berlin and Washington, DC.
In the Newark audience were people who recalled how Prinz had faced down the Gestapo as a young rabbi in Berlin and when he invited Dr. Martin Luther King, his close ally, to speak from his pulpit.
“This really was my father,” said his daughter Deborah, who lives in South Orange. Though initially wary when approached with the idea of a work based on his life, she said she’s impressed by the documentary, and hopes it will lead to a broader awareness of her father’s legacy.
Prinz’s son Jonathan, who shared the B’nai Abraham pulpit with him for 10 years before switching careers and going into marketing, said he still misses his father, who died in 1988 at the age of 86. Watching the film “was like having him here,” he said. “He was such an extraordinary person, as a parent as well as in so many other ways.”
The film was followed by a the discussion, led by B’nai Abraham’s current leader, Rabbi Cliff Kulwin, featuring the two Rachels; Clement Price, director of the Institute on Ethnicity, Culture, and the Modern Experience at Rutgers University; and former Prinz congregant and fellow activist Jacqueline Levine.
Price mentioned Prinz’s problem with the notion of American “exceptionalism,” suggesting that the rabbi believed that such a distinction could be sustained only if Americans were living up to their own aspirations.
“Were he with us now, what would he be picketing about?” Kulwin asked; Prinz, he said, “holds our feet to the fire.”
That thought was echoed by many in the audience. Seeing the film, said one spectator, “made me think, ‘What can I do to make things better?’ I really feel I need to get out there and do something.”