PBS opens window on those who get The Calling

Danny Alpert spent his boyhood in the northern Chicago suburb of Highland Park immersed in Conservative Jewish life. He attended Hebrew day school, actively participated in USY and frolicked at Camp Ramah.

“I was all enveloped,” Alpert recalls on the phone from his Chicago office. “I was deep into it. When I was a teenager, I seriously considered rabbinical school. It wasn’t my path. But I was left with the question: ‘What if?’ ”

Alpert went on to become a documentary filmmaker, a job whose perks include being able to satisfy one’s curiosity on just about any topic (money permitting). So he spent a large chunk of the last eight years producing “The Calling,” an intimate portrait of young spiritual leaders that will air in two-hour segments on back-to-back nights starting Monday, Dec. 20 on PBS.

Rather than surveying the role of religion in American life, Alpert focused on the personal inspirations, aspirations and struggles of seven Jews, Catholics, Muslims and Protestants preparing for careers in the clergy. As the executive producer and series director, Alpert assembled the team of filmmakers, visited seminaries and yeshivas and determined which individuals to follow.

“The secret of observational documentary filmmaking is trust and openness, and we asked for almost carte blanche to come in and do what we do, and a leap of faith — no pun intended — from these people,” Alpert says.

The two Jewish subjects are, unexpectedly, both from the same place: Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, a Modern Orthodox rabbinical school in Riverdale, N.Y. Although this simplified the shooting process a bit, the filmmakers primarily had their audience in mind.

Daniel Alpert photo/courtesy of the kindling group

“There are so many characters already, and to explain the different denominations and what the difference is between them was going to take a lot of time and effort,” Alpert notes. “So we made a decision to keep denominations and schools to a minimum to make it easier on the viewer.”

The risk is that Conservative and Reform Jews may feel slighted, even though Yerachmiel Shapiro and Shmuly Yanklowitz are profoundly likable and committed individuals, and first-rate emissaries for Judaism.

“My hope is that if they watch the film and they are open to it, Jews of all denominations will be able to identify with the characters and their struggles,” Alpert says. “These are more human stories than denominational stories.”

In the film, Shapiro, a big, awkward guy with a framed photo of Jerry Garcia, accepts a post with a small, older New Jersey congregation. His enthusiasm, palpable in the first Shabbat dinner that he prepares with his pregnant wife, proves as valuable as his knowledge of prayer and scripture.

“Yerachmiel’s story is almost a coming-of-age story,” says Alpert, who lived in Israel for 15 years and

majored in film at Tel Aviv University. “He’s haimish and

you want to reach out and pinch his cheek. He’s just a nice Jewish boy trying to do the right thing. [Yanklowitz’s] story is about a religious leader trying to define a new path that combines social justice and traditional rabbinic roles.”

Yanklowitz, a year or two behind Shapiro in school, goes to Postville, Iowa, in the middle of the Agriprocessors scandal to help the illegal immigrants employed by the kosher meatpacker. He later shleps to Southern California to assist with the wildfire relief effort.

Rabbi Yerachmiel Shapiro in “The Calling” photo/courtesy of the kindling group

“One of the main themes of ‘The Calling’ is modernity and faith, and how these two things coexist in American society,” Alpert says. “Chovevei Torah, to my mind, is the most interesting place. They’re trying to bring the modern back into Modern Orthodoxy.”

One of the most compelling aspects of the documentary is the way it shifts between characters, inviting us to witness the hurdles, real-world problems and self-doubts that each person encounters, to various degrees. We may not be familiar with the details and rituals of every religion, but we come to respect each individual’s urge to serve, and their extraordinary humanity.

Alpert reveals that one funder proposed separating the denominations into different hours instead of one integrated whole.  The advantage of Alpert’s approach is that audiences are exposed to a range of religions rather than just tuning in to see their own.

“I fought back pretty rigorously against that [suggestion],” Alpert says. “It’s about the interweaving of the different faiths. How much is the Catholic community going to be interested in Orthodox Jewry? These are American stories. Keeping what is meaningful in the traditional ways and fully embracing the modern world is a tension we can all relate to.”

“The Calling”
part one airs 10 p.m. Monday, Dec. 20 on KQED Channel 9. Part two airs 10 p.m. Tuesday, Dec. 21. Part of the PBS Independent Lens series. Visit www.kqed.org for additional airings.

Michael Fox

Michael Fox is a longtime film journalist and critic, and a member of the San Francisco Film Critics Circle. He is the curator and host of the CinemaLit film series at the Mechanics’ Institute and teaches documentary classes at the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute programs at U.C. Berkeley and S.F. State. In 2015, the San Francisco Film Society added Fox to Essential SF, its ongoing compendium of the Bay Area film community's most vital figures and institutions.