Recently, the nonprofit group Jewish Funds for Justice (JFSJ) launched a bipartisan Web video, “Al Tirah!” with the hope of encouraging people to vote during the midterm elections, but the organization wants the message of the film — that people should feel empathy for others, rather than fear — to resonate beyond Nov. 2.
“While this isn’t a political video, it is about getting people up and out of despair to do something,” said Jewish Funds for Justice president and CEO Simon Greer, during an interview. “My hope is that it will have those kinds of ripples, that beyond the election, in people’s daily lives and the choices they make philanthropically — how they volunteer their time, how they extend themselves to people not like themselves, [that] they wont be gripped by fear.”
“Al Tirah!” (the Hebrew phrase comes from the Torah and translates as “fear not!”), an approximately three-minute film, mixes animation, documentary and montage and stars Rabbi Sharon Brous of Los Angeles synagogue IKAR. During the film, Brous explains why empathy works more effectively than fear. “Fear confuses our moral landscape,” she says. “There is such a thing as an empathy neuron — a part of the brain that allows us to experience other people’s pain, joy, longing, loss as if it were our own.”
Brous’ High Holy Days sermon “A Spiritual State of the Union,” inspired “Al Tirah!” At the film’s premiere event in October, Mik Moore, director of communications and public policy at JFSJ, said that after reading Brous’ recent sermon online, he and JFSJ decided to create a video that examines the imbalance of fear versus empathy in the United States.
“It’s just a small way of bringing [Brous’] words to a much wider audience,” Moore said.
In the midst of the 2008 election season, Moore helped create another Web video, “The Great Schlep,” which starred comedian Sarah Silverman. In the video, Silverman tells young people to travel to Florida to urge their grandparents to vote for Barack Obama.
Moore and Greer sought out the help of producer Robert Green and director Julie Hermelin in making “Al Tirah!”
Moore and Greer wanted something “that will be viral, will make noise, that people will respond to,” Green said, during an interview.
As of Nov. 2, “Al Tirah!” has had more than 20,000 views on YouTube.
According to Brous, the origins of the “Al Tirah!” film go back further than her sermon. Speaking to an intimate audience prior to a screening of the film, Brous said that a group of protesters rallied outside her office in August, yelling hateful slurs, and “I thought two things. One, what has happened to America? And two, this is going to make a great sermon one day.”
In the sermon, Brous cites the controversy over the mosque at Ground Zero and the United States’ immigration question, calling for a response of empathy “rather than fear” and for Jews to use their understanding of persecution to heighten their empathic consciousness.
JFSJ’s Moore said “Al Tirah!” lacks the comedic flair of his Sarah Silverman video for a reason. “Different moments call for different tone,” he said. “I think this tone is more than appropriate for the way the country feels right now.”