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BEHIND THE SCENES with Eric Molinsky


How did you hear about Temple Beth Shalom B'nai Zaken? What inspired you to make a story about the congregation

I first heard about Hebrew Israelites when the singer Joshua Nelson performed gospel-style Jewish songs at my parents' synagogue in Massachusetts. I was intrigued, so I researched the history of the movement and looked online for a synagogue that I could profile. Temple Beth Shalom B'nai Zaken had a very user-friendly website, and their rabbi, Capers Funnye, had been featured in other stories. At the time, I had no idea he was the cousin of Michele Obama

How do you think your own Judaism influenced the way you approached and told the story? And how do you think it influenced the way the people you interviewed related to you

I come from a background of Reform Judaism, and my view on Judaism is pretty inclusive. But I knew that other Jews had been skeptical of the Hebrew Israelites. At first, some people at the congregation were concerned that I had come with an agenda to discredit them, but eventually they saw I was just there to learn and listen. That dynamic flipped when some of them would quiz me on how often I go to shul [Ed. note: shul is the Yiddish term for "synagogue"], which isn't often

Did working on the story change the way you think about your own relationship to Judaism

It inspired me to look into the diversity of the world of Judaism. I did a piece for Tablet Magazine on Indian Jews in Bollywood movies, and I became interested in my sliver of Sephardic heritage (my ancestors are mostly Ashkenazi, from Eastern Europe and Russia). I'm also interested in the mid-20th century relationship between blacks and Jews. I recently did a story about the Jewish family that owned the Apollo Theater in Harlem for Tablet Magazine

You say at one point that some Hebrew Israelites have grown tired of journalists who treat them as something exotic. Was this something you encountered and had to negotiate

Yes, definitely. At first, some of the people were excited when I walked through the door because they thought I had only come to check out the temple, and they wanted me to know I was welcome. Once I took out my equipment and they realized I was a journalist, the dynamic changed and they were more guarded.

Since we're an audio fest, we like to ask at least one question about sound. So: did the sound of Shabbat at Beth Shalom surprise you? And if so, how

They were very generous in letting me record the entire service. What surprised me most, and I mentioned this in the piece, was how upbeat the music was. I was used to somber Jewish music, and this music was so joyful, very openly and directly praising God.