Across Oceans and Generations—A Jewish History of Tidewater, VA

by | Feb 23, 2015 | Featured

Documentary of Tidewater Jewish community’s past, present and future
Across Oceans and Generations—A Jewish History of Tidewater, VA
Sunday, March 8, 4 pm, Sandler Family Campus

A keen interest in history and the desire for what she thought would be a relatively small project, brought Joan London Baer a big, new title she never expected: executive producer.

For the past four years, off and on, Baer has spent hundreds of hours working on the documentary Across Oceans and Generations—A Jewish History of Tidewater, VA. The petite, energetic Virginia Beach resident (who worked at the Hebrew Academy of Tidewater for 30 years) quickly went from active retiree to self-taught film exec, learning, on the fly, what it takes to make a movie.

The Baer Family Foundation provided funds for the creation of the documentary that takes viewers on a journey from the arrival of German and Eastern European Jews who settled in the region in the 1800s, to the establishment of today’s Tidewater Jewish community, known throughout America for its strength and vitality.

Vintage photos, archival film footage, and interviews with more than 20 local community members are masterfully combined to tell stories of the past and offer hope for the future.

“My vision was to make this documentary as comprehensive as I could, from my perspective, knowing that I couldn’t put every person and every story in, even though I tried my best to have as much of a historical and community representation as possible,” says Baer.

“We start at the beginning, from the journey over on the boat—and of course, Moses Myers—to living through very hard times, to the two very separate communities who existed here—the German Jews and the Eastern Europeans. We show what finally brings them together, and, how, since then we’ve prospered. And then, we take a look at what’s ahead.”

Baer is making a gift of the video to the community. Copies of the DVD will be available for a donation to the United Jewish Federation of Tidewater ‘s special Across the Generations Scholarship Fund.

Baer will be the first to admit that a community project like this wasn’t on her mind when, about eight years ago, she began researching her family’s genealogy. Her husband Stephen (of blessed memory) both inspired and encouraged her. He had spent several years researching his own genealogy, and then planned and staged a 2007 reunion for more than 200 descendants of Jews from the Berkley neighborhood, in what is now Norfolk.

“One day Stephen said to me, ‘You know, you’ve been so interested, and you’ve done all of this work on your own family and you’ve found out so much, why don’t you tell the story of the Tidewater Jewish community?’” Baer says.

“I thought about it, and I said, ‘Yes, it will be another good project.’”

The information Baer discovered in her research fascinated her, and Stephen, too. Baer is a lifelong resident, and although Stephen didn’t move here until he was middle-aged, he visited frequently; his grandparents and 20 first cousins lived in Tidewater.

The couple began working to learn more about the Jews who settled in the area. Familiar with the story of Myers, whose 1792 home in downtown Norfolk is the oldest Jewish residence in America, they also had their own research from which to work.

The definitive 2001 book, Norfolk, Virginia: A Jewish History of the 20th Century by Irwin Berent, proved to be another valuable resource. The book was so thorough, the pair had no desire to write another. But a video, they thought, could capture firsthand stories, create visual and oral testimonial to the past, and bring new information to what was contained in Berent’s book.

They contacted Eric Futterman, an award-winning documentarian and producer, whose company EAF Custom Communication, is based in Richmond, about working with them.

“We knew that if we didn’t get these stories, they’d be lost,” says Baer. “When Stephen and I talked about who would produce this, we chose Eric on purpose, because he grew up in Norfolk. He had the same roots as us and we thought he’d be very interested.”

Futterman, whose mother and grandparents were part of the immigrant Norfolk community, enthusiastically agreed to be a partner in the project. He traveled to Norfolk, and with the Baers, pored over materials stored at the Norfolk Public Library and the archives at Ohef Sholom Temple, and started filming.

“We had some very unique opportunities,” says Futterman. “One of them was being able to interview people like Armond Caplan, who has since died, but was close to 100 when we sat down to talk with him. To be able to have someone who can tell you what it was like, very clearly, 70 or 80 years ago, is so rare for a documentary.

“The other thing we had that was really unique for a documentary, was between Joan and me, we had old, personal photographs,” Futterman says.

“With our own personal archives, we were able to reach back really far with some great pictures that we didn’t have to hunt for. I have a booklet of photographs of my grandmother from 1918 frolicking on the beach. This is a photograph that no one has seen for 80 years. Not only did I have access to it, but I get to honor my grandmother. And Joan, the same thing— we have a great photo of her grandfather’s business on Church Street.”

Within a year, however, all work on the project stopped. Stephen Baer got sick, and no one had the time or energy to expend on the intense research. Sadly, Stephen passed away in 2012.

“About a year ago, I got a very touching call from Joan,” says Futterman. “She said, ‘I want to finish this. I really want to finish this.’ And Joan, when she wants to do something, she gets it done. We made it happen.

“We bantered around ideas, we began crafting the final concept, and it was really neat, because after all those years of working on it—spending hours in the library pulling photographs, spending hours at temples pulling photographs, calling people, going through interviews—when it came time to write the script and edit it, it all went by really fast.”

Last summer, Futterman began editing what he thought was the final version when he heard from Baer. She wanted to change the ending. Instead of wrapping it up with a look at today’s youth, she wanted the video to end with frank talk from leaders in the Jewish community, such as Miles Leon, UJFT president and community volunteer and activist Kevin Lefcoe.

“We asked people, ‘What’s the future look like?’ Futterman says. “Some people were very confident—the Jewish community is very strong, it’s smart, it’s going to move forward. Some people were very worried…the documentary leaves it open for people to think about what the future holds. And I think that the people who are going to watch it, hopefully will walk away going, ‘Now I know the legacy of my community. I also know that I have to take part in it for the future.’”

Futterman says there’s a moment in the documentary that is profoundly moving to him, and that he hopes people who see the documentary will “get.”

“Alan Stein is walking through a cemetery and sees a lot of the gravestones of his family, of his ancestry, and he says, so eloquently, ‘To link back in time, to know who you are, to know what you came from—it gives you a greater sense of your own identity,’” says Futterman.

“I hope that when this is shown at the premiere, when it’s seen on TV, and when it’s used for years and years and years for Hebrew high school and adult Jewish education, that kids and adults will be able to link to their own past, to these people who came across on a boat not knowing what in the world they were going to do next. And they made it. I have a huge amount of respect for that.”

Baer, a former director of General Studies at HAT, and Kitty Wolf, Ohef Sholom Temple educator, are completing a teaching curriculum to go along with the DVD. As the documentary was taking shape, Baer realized there were distinct themes running through the community’s history that fit in well with any student’s study of America, of Jewry, of immigrants. The DVD is separated into four chapters for teaching purposes: Journey to Tidewater, the Birth of a Community, the Community Unites and the Modern Jewish Culture.

“It does all boil down to education, which has always been my main focus with this documentary,” Baer says. “Whether it’s education of the community as it exists right now, or it’s education for those people who move here and can be given a DVD history of the community that they’re coming into, or that it’s used by the Sunday Schools, or the adult education programs in every synagogue—it’s about letting people know about the strength of those who came before them.

“I felt very gratified that I’ve been able to tell a story that I wanted to tell. That it was done with great professionalism, and that it involved a lot of people whose stories were important to hear.” Baer says.

by Laine M. Rutherford