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Meet the real-life rabbi in the synagogue scene of ‘Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret’



(JTA) — Rabbi Michael Wolk was nervous when he stepped foot onto his synagogue’s bimah in May 2021 — but not because his congregation was returning to in-person prayer after a pandemic pause.

The jitters were because he was about to debut as an actor, in a role for which he hadn’t auditioned: as the rabbi in “Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret,” which debuted in theaters on Friday.

Wolk was initially brought on as a consultant for the synagogue scene in the film adaptation of Judy Blume’s classic coming-of-age novel, published in 1970 — more than a decade before he was born. He was elevated to on-screen talent when the original actor for the role of Rabbi Kellerman left the project.

“They called me that night and said he doesn’t feel that he can do it — would I be willing to play the rabbi?” Wolk told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency. He said yes.

The story centers on a sixth-grader, Margaret (played by Abby Ryder Fortson), who has a Christian mother and Jewish father who have raised her in neither tradition. As part of Margaret’s grappling with her anxiety about growing up, she embarks on an effort to explore religion and visits a synagogue with her grandmother Sylvia, portrayed by Kathy Bates, who is pushing her to identify with Judaism.

Abby Ryder Fortson as Margaret Simon in “Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret” with Kathy Bates as Sylvia Simon, her Jewish grandmother. (Dana Hawley/LionsGate Publicity)

In the story, Margaret and her family live in New Jersey, but the filming took place in Charlotte, North Carolina, where Wolk has been the rabbi of Temple Israel, a Conservative synagogue, since 2020. (That year, the synagogue petitioned to have its name removed from a local memorial to Judah Benjamin, the Confederacy’s most prominent Jew.) A Long Island native, he came to the synagogue from a pulpit in Louisville, Kentucky.

The film’s producers asked Wolk to prepare what he referred to as a “sermonette” and to stand in the prayer leader’s traditional spot on the bimah in Temple Israel’s sanctuary, surrounded by stained glass. Some of his congregants sat in the pews as extras, which Wolk recalled as a breakthrough moment for Temple Israel, coming a year into the pandemic.

“It was my first time being in the room, being on the bimah with the people in the congregation,” he said. “Even little things like that moment of people responding ‘Shabbat shalom’ when I said it to them, there was something very moving about that.”

But the moment was hardly a typical Shabbat service. For one thing, it was a weekday. For another, Wolk was wearing a black robe, commonly worn by Conservative rabbis and cantors in the mid-20th century but not in fashion today. And his sermon was interrupted repeatedly.

Margaret, the main character in “Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret,” prays by herself as she searches for meaning in her life. (Screenshot from YouTube)

“It did not feel like I was leading a service at any given time because they would have me say ‘Shabbat shalom’ 100 times and have the people and the extras in the room respond ‘Shabbat Shalom’ over and over again,” Wolk said.

The synagogue scene, which is just a few minutes long, took 14 hours to film.

Besides the rabbi’s attire, there are a few differences between the American Jewish world of “Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret” in the 1960s and 1970s and the one today. The film has a female cantor, which wouldn’t have been the case at the time the movie takes place. While the book and movie don’t specify which movement of Judaism the synagogue Margaret visits belongs to, women weren’t ordained in the Reform movement until 1972 and in the Conservative movement until 1985.

“I did point that out and they were interested in representation,” Wolk said. “And that doesn’t bother me that much, but I know that it’s historically inaccurate.”

There are some other continuity issues with the scene: The actors used the prayer books in Temple Israel’s sanctuary, which were only published in the last decade. While the congregation is well over a century old, its current building wasn’t constructed until 1992. And, Wolk confessed, he is wearing an Apple watch, though it is obscured by his robe.

But also, he said, norms around interfaith families like Margaret’s have changed over the decades. In the United States, Jews who married before 1970 married non-Jews 17% of the time, according to a 2013 population study; now, that number is well over 50%. But contrary to what some feared, many of those interfaith couples are raising their children at least in part with Judaism. Their synagogues have adjusted accordingly.

“At the point when the book was written, there was no expectation that an interfaith family would want to participate in the religious life and Jewish life of a synagogue,” Wolk said. “And we know that’s not true right now. We have any number of interfaith families who are active and involved in Temple Israel.”

The post Meet the real-life rabbi in the synagogue scene of ‘Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret’ appeared first on Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

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Phyllis Pollock died at home Sunday September 3, 2023 in Winnipeg, after a courageous lifetime battle with cancer.
Phyllis was a mother of four: Gary (Laura), daughter Randi, Steven (deceased in 2010) (Karen), and Robert. Phyllis also had two grandchildren: Lauren and Quinn.
Born in Fort Frances, Ontario on February 7, 1939, Phyllis was an only child to Ruby and Alex Lerman. After graduating high school, Phyllis moved to Winnipeg where she married and later divorced Danny Pollock, the father of her children. She moved to Beverly Hills in 1971, where she raised her children.
Phyllis had a busy social life and lucrative real estate career that spanned over 50 years, including new home sales with CoastCo. Phyllis was the original sales agent for three buildings in Santa Monica, oceanfront: Sea Colony I, Sea Colony II, and Sea Colony. She was known as the Sea Colony Queen. She worked side by side with her daughter Randi for about 25 years – handling over 600 transactions, including sales and leases within the three phases of Sea Colony alone.
Phyllis had more energy than most people half her age. She loved entertaining, working in the real estate field, meeting new and interesting people everyday no matter where she went, and thrived on making new lifelong friends. Phyllis eventually moved to the Sea Colony in Santa Monica where she lived for many years before moving to Palm Desert, then Winnipeg.
After battling breast cancer four times in approximately 20 years, she developed metastatic Stage 4 lung cancer. Her long-time domestic partner of 27 years, Joseph Wilder, K.C., was the love of her life. They were never far apart. They traveled the world and went on many adventures during their relationship. During her treatment, Phyllis would say how much she missed work and seeing her clients. Joey demonstrated amazing strength, love, care, and compassion for Phyllis as her condition progressed. He was her rock and was by her side 24/7, making sure she had the best possible care. Joey’s son David was always there to support Phyllis and to make her smile. Joey’s other children, Sheri, Kenny, Joshua and wife Davina, were also a part of her life. His kids would Facetime Phyllis and include her during any of their important functions. Phyllis loved Joey’s children as if they were her own.
Thank you to all of her friends and family who were there to support her during these difficult times. Phyllis is now, finally, pain free and in a better place. She was loved dearly and will be greatly missed. Interment took place in Los Angeles.

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Local News

Gwen Centre Creative Living Centre celebrates 35th anniversary



By BERNIE BELLAN Over 100 individuals gathered at the Gwen Secter Centre on Tuesday evening, July 18 – under the big top that serves as the venue for the summer series of outdoor concerts that is now in its third year at the centre.
The occasion was the celebration of the Gwen Secter Centre’s 35th anniversary. It was also an opportunity to honour the memory of Sophie Shinewald, who passed away at the age of 106 in 2019, but who, as recently as 2018, was still a regular attendee at the Gwen Secter Centre.
As Gwen Secter Executive Director Becky Chisick noted in her remarks to the audience, Sophie had been volunteering at the Gwen Secter Centre for years – answering the phone among other duties. Becky remarked that Sophie’s son, Ed Shinewald, had the phone number for the Gwen Secter Centre stored in his phone as “Mum’s work.”

Raquel Dancho (left), Member of Parliament for Kildonan-St.Paul, and Nikki Spigelman, President, Gwen Secter Centre

Remarks were also delivered by Raquel Dancho, Member of Parliament for Kildonan-St. Paul, who was the only representative of any level of government in attendance. (How times have changed: I remember well the steadfast support the former Member of the Legislature for St. John’s, Gord Mackintosh, showed the Gwen Secter Centre when it was perilously close to being closed down. And, of course, for years, the area in which the Gwen Secter Centre is situated was represented by the late Saul Cherniack.)
Sophie Shinewald’s granddaughter, Alix (who flew in from Chicago), represented the Shinewald family at the event. (Her brother, Benjamin, who lives in Ottawa, wasn’t able to attend, but he sent a pre-recorded audio message that was played for the audience.)
Musical entertainment for the evening was provided by a group of talented singers, led by Julia Kroft. Following the concert, attendees headed inside to partake of a sumptuous assortment of pastries, all prepared by the Gwen Secter culinary staff. (And, despite my asking whether I could take a doggy bag home, I was turned down.)

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Palestinian gunmen kill 4 Israelis in West Bank gas station



This is a developing story.

(JTA) — Palestinian gunmen killed four people and wounded four in a terror attack at a gas station near the West Bank settlement of Eli, the Israeli army reported.

An Israeli civilian returning fire at the scene of the attack on Tuesday killed one of the attackers, who emerged from a vehicle, and two others fled.

Kan, Israel’s public broadcaster, said one of those wounded was in serious condition. The gunmen, while in the vehicle, shot at a guard post at the entry to the settlement, and then continued to the gas station which is also the site of a snack bar. A nearby yeshiva went into lockdown.

Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant announced plans to convene a briefing with top security officials within hours of the attack. Kan reported that there were celebrations of the killing in major West Bank cities and in the Gaza Strip, initiated by terrorist groups Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad. Hamas said the shooting attack Tuesday was triggered by the Jenin raid.

The shooting comes as tensions intensify in the West Bank. A day earlier, Israeli troops raiding the city of Jenin to arrest accused terrorists killed five people.

The Biden administration spoke out over the weekend against Israel’s plans to build 4,000 new housing units for Jewish settlers in the West Bank. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu also finalized plans to  transfer West Bank building decisions to Bezalel Smotrich, the extremist who is the finance minister. Smotrich has said he wants to limit Palestinian building and expand settlement building.

Kan reported that the dead terrorist was a resident of a village, Urif, close to Huwara, the Palestinian town where terrorists killed two Israeli brothers driving through in February. Settlers retaliated by raiding the village and burning cars and buildings.

The post Palestinian gunmen kill 4 Israelis in West Bank gas station appeared first on Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

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