by Mary Frances Cavallaro and Len Lear
When Rachel Eskin Fisher was growing up on Wellesley Road in West Mt. Airy, attending the Henry Houston School on Allens Lane from kindergarten through 6th grade and then Springside School from 7th through 12th grade, there was no indication that Rachel would become a documentary filmmaker of extremely weighty issues.
But that is exactly what she has become. Fisher, now 45, has directed (with her colleague, Rachel Nierenberg Pasternak) a documentary, “Joachim Prinz: I Shall Not Be Silent,” that will be screened next Tuesday, Nov. 11, 6 and 8 p.m., at the National Museum of American Jewish History, 101 South Independence Mall (near 5th and Market Streets) as part of the Jewish Film Festival. It is the first film to comprehensively chronicle and examine the life and mission of a famed German-American rabbi and civil rights activist who lived from 1902 to 1988.
Fisher went to the University of Rochester in upstate New York, where she majored in history with a focus on African and African American history. After graduating from college, she returned to Philly and lived in a South Philly row house with some other young women. She worked at the Commissary restaurant and at Giovanni’s Room bookstore.
She did that for a year and a half, then went to Israel for 6 months and then to graduate school in California and eventually earned a PhD in religious studies from the University of California, but she insisted on giving a “shout out” to Springside School. “The teachers there really helped train my mind,” she said, “to ask good questions, do research and tell stories well. I recently returned to Springside (now SCH Academy) to show the film to some alumni and speak to some of the middle school girls about filmmaking, and it was a real pleasure.”
Recalling her formative years in Mt. Airy and Chestnut Hill, Fisher told us last week, “I had a truly idyllic childhood growing up in a close-knit community with lots of kids on my block. I was very happy. I was very aware of questions of racial and religious identity from a young age, growing up in a diverse neighborhood. I have always considered growing up in Mt Airy a real privilege.
“I live in Maplewood, NJ, now because we need to be near New York City for my husband’s work. But when deciding where to live, I looked for a place that was similar to Mt. Airy. Although there are differences, Maplewood has a lot in common with Mt. Airy and is a racially and economically diverse town where my children attend public school.”
Fisher, who realized early on that her passion was telling compelling stories, started out by working with individual families, helping them record and edit their family histories, but 15 years ago she was introduced to Pasternak, who shared similar interests and ideas. They both wanted to work on larger, multi-media projects and decided to work together. That’s how their company, R Squared Productions, was born. Pasternak and Fisher conducted a successful campaign on Kickstarter, raising $20,000. (Pasternak and Kickstarter founder Perry Chen are first cousins.)
Their film that will be screened in center city on Nov. 11 is not the first they have directed. Their first project was a 15-minute film for the Auschwitz Jewish Center. Their task was to craft a film that told the story of the Jewish community of Oswiecim, Poland, the town where the Auschwitz concentration camp was located. Oswiecim had a thriving Jewish community before the war, and their job was not to tell the story of the camp but the story of the life that existed before it.
“We edited interviews from the Survivors of the Shoah Visual History Foundation, which is a collection of filmed interviews with Holocaust survivors,” said Fisher. “We watched many, many hours of interviews with Jewish survivors who had grown up in Oswiecim and made a film that drew a picture of the Jewish community in the town before the war. We were both working at day jobs at the time, so we worked late at night with an editor in an editing room that had been donated for the project.”
There are, of course, many inspirational people who’ve changed America with their words and actions. When asked, “Why did you choose Joachim Prinz for this recent documentary?” Fisher explained, “[Pasternak] had written her Master’s thesis about Rabbi Joachim Prinz. She knew about him because, in additional to being a refugee from Nazi Germany and an outspoken civil rights advocate, he was her grandparents’ rabbi at Temple B’nai Abraham in Newark, NJ. Rachel showed me a copy of the text of Rabbi Prinz’ speech at the March on Washington.
“When I read the speech, I felt that I had been waiting my whole life to hear those words. And when [Pasternak] and I looked into Prinz’ full life story, we realized what an amazing story it was, and we were struck by the fact that most people had not heard of Prinz. Prinz’ children were very open and encouraging of us making the film. It was a story that was waiting to be told.”
Fisher admitted that making the film was arduous but exciting. It was a long process, which took years because she and Pasternak had to raise money for each step of the process. In addition, both Fisher and Pasternak were primary caretakers of their children throughout the making of the film. “We’re grateful to the Prinz family and to all the film’s supporters who are listed on our website (www.prinzdocumentary.org),” Fisher said.
“Joachim Prinz: I Shall Not Be Silent” is a documentary about a courageous religious activist who served as rabbi of a Newark, NJ, congregation from 1939 to 1972. He spoke against bigotry over the course of five decades, starting in Berlin under the Hitler regime, later as an outspoken leader of the US civil rights movement and beyond. He was arrested several times by the Nazis in the 1930s, and he routinely urged his congregants to leave Germany.
As rabbi of Temple B’nai Abraham in Newark and later as president of the American Jewish Congress, Prinz became a key leader in the civil rights movement, working with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. to organize the 1963 March on Washington. Addressing about 250,000 hopeful onlookers moments before Dr. King would most notably proclaim “I Have a Dream,” Rabbi Prinz asked the same throng to make their voices heard throughout the land to promote justice and racial harmony.
“I love the medium of film as a way to transmit stories from the past in a way that fully communicates them,” the Springside graduate told us. “Film is a great way to do that because you can utilize verbal and visual language to convey your meaning. I also like film because you can explain less and show more.”
Fisher’s husband, Daniel, is a psychologist. Her parents, Ernest and Myra Eskin, are both retired social workers. Myra was the executive director of Jewish Family Services of Atlantic County, NJ, and Ernest was executive director of Traveler’s Aid Society of Philadelphia. They now live in center city. Rachel’s brother, Matthew, 44, a graduate of the Houston School in Mt. Airy and then CHA, is now head of the middle school at the Philadelphia School in center city. He lives in East Mt. Airy.
“Joachim Prinz: I Shall Not Be Silent” will be shown at the National Museum of American Jewish History on Tuesday, Nov. 11, 6 and 8 p.m. Rachel Fisher, as well as Prinz’ granddaughter, Deborah Prinz, will take part in a post-film discussion after the 8 p.m. screening. Tickets will be available at the door. Or visit pjff.org/film-lineup/joachim-prinz-shall-silent/ and click on “Buy Tickets.” Then click on the link to either the 6 p.m. or 8 p.m. show.