Guest Column: Film Academy’s Rabbi Looks Back on 40 Years of Membership

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I take great pride when I read news stories in my Hollywood Reporter about young people from a wide array of ethnic groups making their entry into the wonderful world of motion pictures. Last month, almost 400 people, many from the Asian, African-American and Latino communities, were invited to join the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. More than a few of them have experienced hardship, discrimination and intolerance, but they persevered and can now take great pride in being members of the film industry’s most prestigious organization.

I know the feeling well.

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I was born on the Lower East Side in 1939. My parents were born in Europe and were lucky to arrive in this country before the Holocaust, unlike other members of our family who were murdered by the Nazis. We lived in the projects just off the East River Drive. Years later, after I finished my schooling, I was ordained as an Orthodox rabbi and moved to Vancouver, British Columbia, as the rabbi of Congregation Schara Tzedek, and then to Los Angeles with my wife. We arrived out west in 1977. A year later, we established the Simon Wiesenthal Center.

Just prior to the Center’s opening, one of our early board members, Esther Cohen, brought a guest to preview a slide presentation that was to tell the story of the Holocaust. The visitor looked carefully at the six slide projectors positioned against the back wall and then came over to me and said, “Rabbi, I hope you don’t mind my telling you, but this is not going to work. When visitors start coming, they’re going to want to move closer to the photos, and that will then block the projection for others. I think you’d be much better off if you returned the projectors and instead concentrated on making a documentary that can be seen from near and far without any disruption.”

I nodded my thanks and then, moments later, turned to Esther and whispered, “Everybody has an opinion. Who is this lady?” Esther looked at me incredulously and said, “This lady is Fay Kanin, the president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.” I’m sure I turned red as it dawned on me that Ms. Kanin probably had a point.

Sure enough, we gave back our projectors and set about making a documentary, which ultimately became Genocide, directed by Arnold Schwartzman and — thanks to the intercession of Frank Sinatra, an early champion of the Simon Wiesenthal Center — narrated by Elizabeth Taylor and Orson Welles. If that wasn’t enough, the film won the Oscar for best documentary feature in early 1982, becoming the first film about the Holocaust to ever receive that high honor. And then, later that same year, came the icing on the cake: a letter from Fay Kanin inviting me to become a member of the Academy.

This year marks the 40th anniversary of my joining the Academy. It is my understanding that I am the only rabbi who has ever gotten to cast an Oscar ballot and, in the past four decades, I have never missed the opportunity to do so.

In the years since I became an Academy member, the Simon Wiesenthal Center and its Museum of Tolerance have grown — more than 7.5 million people have visited, including four presidents of the United States, six prime ministers of the State of Israel and leaders of the Arab world — as has my own association with the film industry, through which I have been fortunate enough to meet stars like Gal Gadot and Tom Cruise, who my wife and I have hosted for Shabbat dinner at our home, and leaders such as Jeffrey Katzenberg, Ron Meyer, Jim Gianopulos, Bob Iger, Ted Sarandos and Jonathan Dolgen, who have been key supporters of the Center.

Moreover, the Center’s motion picture division, Moriah Films, which is overseen by my colleague and co-producer Rick Trank, has produced 17 films, including another Holocaust documentary which was recognized with the best documentary feature Oscar, The Long Way Home.

I vividly recall being at the 1997 Academy Awards when Robert De Niro opened an envelope and announced that The Long Way Home had won. After writer/director Mark Jonathan Harris, Rick and I collected our statuettes, which we dedicated to “the survivors of the Holocaust who walked away from the ashes, rebuilt their lives and helped create the State of Israel,” we went backstage, and I passed Walter Matthau and Jack Lemmon, who were about to go onstage as presenters. Lemmon took one look at me holding my Oscar and cracked, “Walter, they must have changed the rules! Once upon a time, you had to go to a good acting school to win an Oscar; now it seems all you have to do is go to a good yeshiva [rabbinical school]!”

Though Lemmon was joking, that, I think, is the message of the new Hollywood: be proud of your ethnicity, your identity and your faith. Always remember that there is only one planet Earth, and it is our obligation to enhance it by repudiating hate and intolerance, and creating enduring works that we can pass on to future generations. That, my friends, would make everyone worthy of an Oscar.

Rabbi Marvin Hier is the founder and leader of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, its Museum of Tolerance and its Moriah Films division. Moriah’s most recent film, Never Stop Dreaming: The Life and Legacy of Shimon Peres, is currently streaming on Netflix in 190 countries and has been seen by millions around the world.

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