Founded in 1906 by those determined to continue their Sephardic Jewish traditions in Indianapolis, the Etz Chaim Sephardic Congregation has been a staple of Sephardic law, customs, and acts of loving kindness for more than 117 years. The Sephardic Jews trace their origins to the Iberian peninsula prior to the Inquisition in 1492. After they were forced by the Spanish crown to either convert or flee, many sought refuge in the Middle East, North Africa, and the Ottoman Empire, among other places. The Sephardic community in Indianapolis initially immigrated from two cities then part of the Ottoman Empire: Salonica (now Thessaloniki in northern Greece) and Monastir (now Bitola in the southern part of North Macedonia). The word “Sepharad” means Spain in Hebrew.
It is with this rich history, along with Etz Chaim’s maintenance of a strong Shabbat program, that it was only a matter of time before this story was properly captured through a cinematic lens. Thanks to the work of two local filmmakers, Sarah and Aaron Margolis-Greenbaum, such time is now.
“Who We Are” stands as a beautiful testament to the first century of Etz Chaim’s established history in the community, concisely told across an hour of archival footage and newly recorded interviews. But such a project didn’t arise out of sheer coincidence. “We have been interested in moviemaking ever since we were kids,” says co-creator Sarah Margolis-Greenbaum. “Our older brother would use us as actors for his school projects, but we stuck with it after he eventually grew out of it.” After years of various classes throughout middle school, high school, and college, the Margolis-Greenbaum duo have certainly honed their craft with feature-length projects such as “Whacked,” and an ongoing web series simply called “#.”
While such a project is a communal good, both Sarah and Aaron have personal ties to the congregation. “Our family has been members of Etz Chaim for almost 30 years,” says the duo. “[Opportunity knocked when] the president and vice president of our synagogue, Alan Cohen and Gadi Boukai, told us that they had been given around 50 VHS tapes from a member of the synagogue [and] they asked if we would be able to take the footage that was usable and make a documentary about the history of Etz Chaim.”
Over the course of months, the digitizing and interviewing process took place and resulted in numerous stories, hundreds of pages of interview notes, and a deeper understanding of the history of one’s faith. “So many of the interviews were emotionally moving,” says the duo. “We felt so humbled when learning about how much of their lives members of the congregation dedicated to the synagogue.”
Along with the lived experiences recorded and recited first-hand during the shoot, the team connected with IUPUI’s Professor of Anthropology in the School of Liberal Arts, Dr. Susan Hyatt. Professor Hyatt, who became involved with Etz Chaim years ago, as part of her research project on the African-American and Jewish residents of the near Southside, an endeavor which ultimately resulted in a student-authored book “The Neighborhood of Saturdays.” “When doing research for the documentary,” the duo went on to say, “we saw how much information from her book would be essential to have in the documentary, and it was a no-brainer to ask her to be interviewed.”
Knowing that the stories told can now be passed on and spread digitally to all who will hear, the team offered final words of thanks saying that the experience “has made Etz Chaim more than just a building to us,” and such a sentiment can be seen and felt throughout the film.
The initial Etz Chaim Sephardic synagogue was located on the southside, in a former church located at the corner of Church and Morris Streets. The synagogue then moved to 64th and Hoover Road, another former church. In 2005, the community raised enough funds to build their own synagogue, now located on Hoover Road. While the original founding families from Salonica and Monastir are remembered and honored by the synagogue, this welcoming congregation is now made up of a diverse group of Jews who hail from a number of different origins, including Israelis, Iranians, and others.
Though Sarah and Aaron are excited to return to producing Season 2 of “#,” “Who We Are” can be watched anytime on You Tube.