For filmmaker Sandi Simcha DuBowski, "Trembling Before G-d" isn't just a documentary, it's a revolutionary movement.
The searing, award-winning film profiles gay Orthodox Jews struggling to reconcile their love of Judaism with the strict biblical prohibitions against homosexuality. But DuBowski hasn't been content with the good reviews he's received since the documentary debuted at the 2001 Sundance Film Festival. With grants from groups such as Steven Spielberg's Righteous Person Foundation, he's industriously parlayed the movie into an international outreach effort to change attitudes about the gay frum (Orthodox) community.
When "Trembling" opened in New York in October, 15 Orthodox synagogues sponsored post-screening dialogues. Two-thousand viewers participated in a passionate discussion after a Nottingham, England, screening last year. And when "Trembling" opens at Laemmle's Sunset 5 in West Hollywood on Feb. 20, the director's goals will be equally ambitious.
He's hired a Los Angeles outreach team, headed by former Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles publicist Michelle Kleinert, to organize discussions and related events with Orthodox and community groups. DuBowski and Rabbi Steven Greenberg, the first openly gay frum rabbi, will be on hand to talk to audiences. Events this month include a screening sponsored by the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) and a New Israel Fund event.
"To have [Orthodox] rabbis and synagogues actually putting their names on a public dialogue about an issue that has never had a public hearing is extraordinary," marvels DuBowski, who himself is a member of the Jewish gay community.
Nursing a glass of water recently at a busy Santa Monica restaurant, the New York filmmaker spoke of the extraordinary effect his movie has been having around the country. "We opened in New York on Oct. 24, and it was supposed to have a two- week run," he recalls. "It broke box office records for opening day. It did so well that ... it's grossed over $300,000, which for a documentary is extraordinary."
Spoken like a true creature of show business. But for the small, thin, 30-something with thinning hair and a Harvard degree, his physical presence belying the passion within, the commercial prospects for the film are the least of his concerns. What DuBowski is after is something much more radical: He wants frum Jews to learn to nurture and include observant gay and lesbians in their midst, instead of giving them the bleak choice of becoming "cured" of their sexuality or facing lifelong exile from the only way of life they have ever known. And he wants us to understand that "Trembling Before G-d" is changing lives -- lots of them.
"Already we've had famous rabbis all over Long Island and New York announcing it on Saturday morning from the pulpit," DuBowski enthuses. "And what we did in the synagogues of New York, we're repeating in every city we go to. I'm meeting with Orthodox rabbis and holding dialogues and discussions with all kinds of panels.
"It's put the film on the map in the frum community."
In Nottingham, a woman stood up after a screening and said, "I went to the mikvah three weeks ago to cleanse myself of my homosexuality. After seeing the film, I'm going to accept it.'"
In other cities, DuBowski says, "People have come up to me and whispered, 'I buried my son,' 'I buried my brother who died of AIDS,' and they're so ashamed they've never been able to speak of it to anyone. So with my grants I hope to build a supportive network of rabbis and Orthodox mental health professionals."
But DuBowski admits that at least one section of the Orthodox community slams the film and criticizes it for being "incomplete and distorted." Among the naysayers are officials of Agudath Israel, who released a letter titled, "Dissembling before G-d," criticizing the film for not treating homosexuality as a mental illness that can be cured.
The question that DuBowski finds most irksome comes from Conservative and Reform Jews: "If the Orthodox believe they are an abomination," some people ask, "why don't they simply find non-Orthodox congregations where they will be accepted?"
"You're asking someone just because of their sexual orientation to rip the root out of their culture and to go into another," DuBowski protests. "For some people it works, but for the vast majority it's like asking someone to cut off their sexuality to save their spirituality or to cut off their spirituality to save their sexuality."
Don't tell DuBowski he's doomed to failure since Orthodoxy, by definition, is fixed and immutable. "Why then have [so many] Orthodox synagogues invited the film to screen?" he counters.
"My ultimate goal is when an Orthodox parent has a gay child that they can say to that child, 'I can't say that our shul may be the shul you'll grow old in, but there's a shul in this city where the rabbi is supportive and that you don't have to give up Torah, you don't have to leave the community, you can live your life there as a religious Jew.' I want there to be safe havens where gay and lesbian people can live lives of Torah and mitzvahs and help build the Jewish people."
For information about the movie, see www.tremblingbeforeG-d.com. For information about a $250-per-person gala benefit at the home of "Sex & the City" creator Darren Star on March 7, call Judy Sitsitzer at (310) 899-9191. To set up discussion groups and Q & A sessions with DuBowski, Greenberg and those in the movie, contact Michelle Kleinert at (323) 868-3624 or Michelle@TremblingBeforeG-d.com . For screening times at the Laemmle theater, call (323) 848-3500.