When Rob Schwartz, founder of the Hidden Light Institute (HLI) and a former chief of staff to Senator Joe Lieberman, approached Stamford resident Judith Lupatkin-Bernstein for support for his planned documentary on the life of Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin, the idea struck a deep chord within her.
“I have a passion for filmmaking, for how film reflects on culture and for how culture is reflected by film,” said Lupatkin-Bernstein, who has worked for USA Networks and NBCUniversal and is now manager of program marketing at HBO. “I love being able to combine so many parts of my life in one project: my love of the Jewish people, my love of documentaries, and my love of marketing films.”
Today, Lupatkin-Bernstein is vice chair of the board of HLI and the film “Upheaval: The Journey of Menachem Begin” is earning plaudits at festivals around the country. It will kick off the Jewish Film Festival of Fairfield County’s 20th annual festival on October 14.
For another member of HLI’s board, Rabbi Daniel Cohen, senior rabbi of Congregation Agudath Sholom in Stamford, “Menachem Begin represents the ideal Jewish leader, not only because of his dedication to the people of Israel and to his family, but also for his humility. He was just such a mensch.”
In fact, the festival committee’s choice of “Upheaval” as the lead film was unanimous, something that rarely happens, said Nancy Schiffman, associate executive director of development and signature programs at the Stamford Jewish Community Center. “It’s really a great film, and to have some local folks involved in its creation makes it a beautiful showcase for us,” she said.
Schwartz, who was born and raised in New Haven, got the idea for the documentary after being captivated by Begin’s story in Yehuda Avner’s book “The Prime Minister,” which recounts the lives of four Israeli prime ministers. He founded HLI, raised money and hired award-winning director Jonathan Gruber to direct.
“To tell the story of Menachem Begin is to tell the story of modern-day Israel and the Jewish people,” said Schwartz.
The film chronicles the life of the consequential—and controversial—prime minister, starting with his days as a young student and Zionist in a Polish shtetl. It tells of the killing of his family in the Holocaust, his imprisonment in a Russian gulag and his eventual release and journey to Palestine in 1942 where he led the Irgun, fighting the British and later, the Arabs. Following Israel’s founding he was elected to the Knesset and eventually became prime minister, a role in which he famously negotiated the 1979 Egypt-Israeli Peace Treaty and a shared Nobel prize with Egyptian president Anwar Sadat.
While Begin’s tenure was marked by controversy, which the film does not shy away from, it was also marked by policies that welcomed to Israel Jews of many ethnicities and cultures, and that tackled contentious issues, including the sensitive dynamics of Jewish-Arabic, Sephardi-Ashkenazi and black-white relationships.
But “Upheaval” is more than a biography. It is part of an international effort by HLI, including the development of a curriculum in six languages, to highlight Begin’s accomplishments on behalf of the state of Israel and to tell the story of Israel’s founding to young Jews, many of whom have little knowledge of the Jewish state or of the struggles that led to its founding. The hope is that they will be inspired by Begin’s unflinching pride in being a Jew to fight the reappearance of antisemitism in the world today.
“This is a very important film not only as entertainment but also to educate,” said Lupatkin-Bernstein. “When it comes to teaching young people about Israel, we want to push away all the things that make you different and [focus on] how are we the same, how can we love a fellow person, how we can bridge that gap. That’s Begin’s legacy, that he wanted to make Israel a place where Jews could live in harmony.”
“Upheaval” will open the festival Thursday, October 14 at 7:30 p.m. at the Bow Tie Cinemas Landmark 8 in Stamford, Connecticut. Tickets for “Upheaval” are on sale at https://www.stamfordjcc.org/filmfestival.
At the opening, Schwartz, the film’s executive producer, will recognize Rabbi Cohen and Lupatkin-Bernstein with a special presentation recognizing their contributions in helping to make the film a reality.
The festival, both in-person and virtual, will run through November 21 and feature one film per week over six weeks.
By Judy Fleischer