At the beginning of every year, Beth Israel Congregation of Owings Mills brings the community together to enjoy films from across the world. The Conservative synagogue has been hosting the Rachel V. Glaser Film Festival, a three-week event where Beth Israel screens a film with Jewish themes every Saturday, for over 15 years.
This year’s festival recently kicked off on Saturday, Feb. 3, with a screening of the 2020 film “Tiger Within,” notable for being Ed Asner’s final performance before his death. Two other film screenings will be held — with the film “America” screening on Feb. 10 and “The Frisco Kid” on Feb. 17 — and are open to the general public, not just Beth Israel members.
The film festival was the brainchild of Rachel V. Glaser, who served as the director of Beth Israel’s religious school for 26 years. Following her death in 2022, the synagogue elected to name the annual film festival in her honor.
“She was an educator’s educator. She trained teachers beautifully, and worked well with children,” said Saundra Madoff, chair of Beth Israel’s lifelong learning committee. “She was a member of our committee and a friend, so we all miss her very much. We were all feeling her loss tremendously. The film festival was her idea to begin with, so it just seemed like a nice way to honor her memory.”
In addition to her work at Beth Israel, Glaser also taught at Chizuk Amuno Congregation’s Rosenbloom Religious School and had been involved with the Gordon Center’s Baltimore Jewish Film Festival for many years, serving as a longstanding member of its film selection committee.
The criteria for a film being included in the Rachel V. Glaser Film Festival are simple. First, all screened films must have some Jewish content, whether they are explicitly about Jewish characters or focus on Jewish themes. Typically, the festival’s committee tries to select one documentary, one drama film and one comedy every year, but sometimes they choose more than one in each of these categories. This year’s lineup features two dramas instead of a documentary.
Foreign films are a popular staple at the festival. This year’s selection includes “America,” an Israeli-made drama about an Israeli swimming instructor who returns to his home country after living in Chicago for many years.
“It’s a very interesting and touching Israeli film, and we love to support Israeli films by showing them in the festival when possible,” Madoff explained.
She added that part of the reason they strive to include foreign films every year is because they offer diverse perspectives on Jewish issues and encourage conversations between attendees.
“Tiger Within,” which chronicles the relationship between an elderly Holocaust survivor and an antisemitic, homeless teen, was chosen in response to the recent rise in antisemitism in the U.S. after the events of Oct. 7.
On the other hand, the festival’s comedy offering, the 1979 Gene Wilder western “The Frisco Kid,” was chosen because it’s a classic and because it counterbalances the other two selected films with some much-needed levity.
In addition to serving as an opportunity to showcase underappreciated Jewish cinema and independent foreign films, the Rachel V. Glaser Film Festival is meant to spark conversations among its attendees and encourage them to see issues from different angles.
“We like to show movies where there’s something to talk about afterwards, where there’s something to think about,” Madoff said. “We hope to challenge people emotionally and intellectually. Ideally, they walk away with something to think about, and the fact that they’ve had an opportunity to see things differently.
“And above all else, it’s a community event,” she added. “It’s a great way to spend time with your Beth Israel friends.”