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Solomon Schechter to Screen Spielberg Documentary ‘Above and Beyond’

Solomon Schechter Day School of Bergen will be screening “Above and Beyond,” the latest film by documentary writer and filmmaker Sophie Sartain, on Sunday evening, October 25 at 7pm. Sartain, together with producer Nancy Spielberg and director Roberta Grossman, has captured the little-known story of the pilots from the U.S. and worldwide who risked their lives to fly in the Israeli Air Force during Israel’s 1948 war.

When Spielberg first read of the passing of Adolph “Al” Schwimmer in 2011, she was stunned to discover that this American-born Israeli engineer was credited with essentially founding the Israeli Air Force. As she dug further, Spielberg discovered that many U.S. pilots had secretly volunteered to fly for Israel, often misleading loved ones as to their intention. Some of these pilots remained in Israel after the War, but many returned to the States, never speaking of their service to Israel until Sartain and Grossman sought them out.

“Gideon Lichtman, a Newark, New Jersey, native, told his mother what he planned to do and—like many mothers—she said ‘you’re not going,’ but he said ‘no, I’m going.” And he did, said Sartain.

Many of these pilots were World War II veterans and, as such, were in their late 80s or early 90s at the time of their interviews for this film. Given their age, the interviews were done quickly and the film was ultimately constructed around interviews with six of these men.

“These men simply came alive during the interviews. It was like they were 25 again and going to Israel for the first time. They were reliving their youth and, for some, telling their stories for the first time,” added Sartain, respect and awe in her voice.

After the initial interviews, Sartain needed to gather as much information on the various missions as possible. She tried to track down the whereabouts of the original planes from the ‘48 war with only moderate success. As such, many of the flying sequences in the film were done using special effects.

What she learned during this process was that these men smuggled airplanes from the U.S. to Israel, using a most circuitous route. They established a fake Panamanian airline and “hopscotched all over the globe, ultimately ending up in Czechoslovakia and, from there, Israel,” Sartain stated. “Of course there were payoffs all along the way. It was like a Spielberg film,” she joked, “like Indiana Jones or something, with so much action and suspense. But this was real.”

For Sartain, it was personally inspiring to hear the men’s stories. “These men risked their lives, and also their American citizenship, since what they did was essentially illegal,” she commented. “That takes true commitment.”

“We wanted to show the fun times and the adventure, but also the heart and heroism of the pilots,” Sartain added.

Of the six original interviewees memorialized in the film, four have passed away, two without ever seeing the film in its entirety.

“Many of the pilots never spoke of their service, so to have it memorialized at the end stage of their lives is truly gratifying for them, and for their loved ones, especially the loved ones of those who have passed on,” Sartain said.

More than 4,400 people from all over the world helped Israel during the ‘48 war and this film is intended to honor them all. These “Overseas Volunteers” were known as Machal, and Sartain believes that at every screening, at least one person in the audience has a connection to one of these brave volunteers.

“It’s all about feeling a connection and telling an incredible story of unbelievable bravery,” she stated.

Sartain will be at the screening, and doing a Q & A with attendees at 7pm. There will be a sponsor’s dinner preceding the film, beginning at 5:45pm.

The event benefits the Stephanie Prezant z”l Israel Scholarship Fund, which provides support to students in need of financial assistance for Schechter’s eighth-grade Israel Encounter. The fund is named in memory of SSDS alumnae Stephanie Prezant, who passed away in 2012 from a rock-climbing accident. Each year, the eighth grade class travels to Israel and Poland as part of their culminating educational experience.

For more information, contact the school at (201) 262-9898.

By Jill Kirsch

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