Can a man tell women’s stories? Filmmaker previews his documentary-in-progress about Orthodoxy

Kol Hanashim

Yisrael Welcher had often felt his problem was unique. He grew up in an Orthodox Jewish family and was conflicted by the values of his heritage and those of American culture.

He began talking about the issue with friends, and realized that his conflict was faced by Americans of many ethnic backgrounds. Meanwhile, he heard the story of Sara Hurwitz, an Orthodox Jew who trained as a spiritual leader and, upon her ordination, created controversy when she took up the title of “rabbah,” or female rabbi.

“[There] are people who are struggling with finding their place in Judaism in America, and those who truly embrace traditional Orthodoxy on a very religious level,” said Welcher, 36.

With the contrast in mind, Welcher decided to take the first steps on creating a documentary, “Kol Hanashim,” (Voices of Women) that tackles the question he had struggled with for years. Taking inspiration from figures like Hurwitz, he decided to do it through the lens of Orthodox women.

Welcher, the producer-director, screened a trailer of the film to about 40 viewers on Aug. 11 at the Embassy Row Hotel.

Welcher and his team have been working on the project since 2014. Their subjects include Maharat Ruth Friedman, from Ohev Sholom — The National Synagogue in Washington, and Baltimore-based Orthodox Jewish life coach Rivka Malka Perlman.

“We look at an Orthodox woman [Perlman] who embraces her heritage with a passion,” said Welcher. “She sees the role of Jewish mother as instilling that into the next generation and she’s super fulfilled by it.”
Friedman “brings aspects of social justice and egalitarianism to Orthodoxy,” he said.

While Friedman and Perlman are enthusiastic about their Orthodox observance, other women that Welcher interviewed are ambivalent. One woman, who lives in Florida, moved south to get away from her religious upbringing in New York. Although she lives a relatively secular life, the trailer also shows her emotional attachment to her religion as she lights Shabbat candles each week.

Overall, the film features nearly a dozen women, from Washington, Baltimore, New York, Florida and California.

“Conceptually, it’s only going to be told from women’s perspectives. There are no male figures or narration,” said Welcher. This made the title “Kol Hanashim” “self-evident” to Welcher, but it drew criticism from one audience member.

“What [do] you think qualifies you to make a movie that you’ve actually titled ‘Voices of Women’?” asked one woman at the screening. “Quite often we see men trying to talk for women, and even though you’re creating a video with women’s voices. … You’re choosing what parts of what they said are going to be shown to everybody.”

Welcher admitted that a man making a documentary about women is an “interesting scenario,” but said that he has taken steps to have women give their perspective on his work throughout the process, including showing the trailer to his subjects before he screened it to the public.
He added that his team’s video editor is a woman.

“Honestly, I wasn’t a huge fan of his response,” the audience member, who identified herself only as Gabby, said later. “I felt it was deflecting the blame by letting us know he had other people looking into women’s voices. Ultimately this is his project and he has to own up to the fact he is a male trying to present a film on women’s voices.”

Welcher said he expects the finished documentary will run two hours and will be finished in September 2017.

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