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Sand on the Floor: A Synagogue's History, and My Own

Sand on the Floor: A Synagogue's History, and My Own

Publicity poster for the documentary film "Sand on the Floor"

I am sitting in a darkened room full of people watching my film, Sand on the Floor. Its reflection from the screen is the only source of light, just enough to see the faces of my 16-member focus-group. I watch for their reactions.

Around the 50-minute mark, though, as the choir sings and it feels like a Hollywood ending, a slow panic builds inside me.

I know what comes next. The scene I never wanted to film. The scene that didn’t fit. The scene that four different rabbis insisted be included. The last scene. The epilogue.

The story of my transformation – turning away from Judaism when I was 13 and embracing it 49 years later – could be a film unto itself. But I wanted to produce a different film, detailing the rich history of the Hebrew Congregation of Saint Thomas – showing the struggle to keep these ancient sanctuary doors open, on this fragile little rock, surrounded by ocean.

I am a 68-year-old, first-time filmmaker and veteran photojournalist. My approach to this documentary was exploratory. I wanted to talk to everyone who had something to say about this congregation’s past, present, or future. It’s an inefficient way to produce a film, but as the process unfolded, it became another important chapter in the journey that I began as a child.

I was raised in a religious vacuum, worshipping Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny. It was the 1950s, post-World War II, post-Hitler era, and my parents just wanted to blend in. My father was particularly loathsome toward spirituality. Inexplicably, I had other feelings, though I had no idea where they came from or what they meant. I was left alone to figure it out.

At 13, my attempts to wade into the waters of Judaism lead me to a Pesach seder at a friend’s house. I marveled at the rituals; I felt connected. There I met a man in his early 20s, my friend’s uncle. He was very nice to me. On our fourth meeting, on a blustery Saturday afternoon when no one was around, and the drapes were drawn tightly, he raped me.

My exploration of Judaism was over.

Seven years ago, if the subject of my religion came up, I would’ve told you, “I have a Jewish name, but I celebrate Christmas and practice Buddhism.”

Then I landed a magazine assignment to photograph the historic synagogue on Saint Thomas. It was only the second time in my 40 years in the Virgin Islands that I set foot inside that building, but the published article led to my photographing many wedding and b’nai mitzvah events. Those experiences – watching the families embrace Judaism, soaking in the sermons, and just being in that sanctuary – renewed the old questions in my heart.

During a tearful meeting with Rabbi Stephen (Shimon) Moch, I told him about the rape, and soon after that, I began attending Shabbat services. Much to my surprise, I was welcomed warmly by the congregation.

The following spring brought another Pesach. Another seder. My dear friend, Mina Orenstein, who had taken it upon herself to help expand my knowledge and understanding of Judaism, invited me to her seder.

I was frozen. I didn’t know how to respond. It had been 49 years since my last seder, 49 years since the rape. Mina stared at me, all this noise running through my head; she was understandably confused. The next day I called and, without explanation, accepted her invitation.

The night was a feast of tradition. The Haggadah was compiled by a poet, Nina Schafer, and it gave voice to the Exodus that exists in today’s world – because now as then, it’s always Egypt. After the second glass of wine, it was my turn to read. By the third sentence, tears flowed, and I struggled to get through. No one there – except my wife Leslie, whose hand lightly touched mine – knew what was happening.

At that very moment, I understood that deep down in the marrow of my bones, I was a Jew. I had always been a Jew, wandering in my own personal desert, my own Egypt. And that evening, I completed my 49-year journey, in a perfect circle, from Pesach to Pesach.

I never wanted my film to include what I call “The Michael Moore Effect,” wherein documentary filmmakers become the centerpiece of their movie. But rabbis Bradd Boxman, Asher Federman, Shimon Moch, and Ron Herstik all said this was my chance to shed light into the dark corner of child sexual abuse and to speak about the transformational power of faith – by telling my story.

I shot the final scene ’60s cinema-noir style, alone in the car, driving and talking. My focus group was stunned. They agreed with the four rabbis, so now I had no choice: I had to include it.

I’m glad I did, but I suspect I will always instinctively turn away as the epilogue begins.

The pain that lived in my soul for five decades is now on display on the big screen. Its inclusion in this film is a testament to the healing power of the human spirit.  The pain that could have extinguished my inner flame has been transformed into a torch that will burn forever.

Learn more about Sand on the Floor and watch the trailer.

Steve Rockstein is a national award-winning photographer. A retrospective exhibition of his work was funded by the National Endowment for the Arts and the Virgin Island Arts Council in 2011. His transition from still to moving images began in 2012. He and his wife, Leslie, have called Saint Thomas home since 1974 and are active members of the Hebrew Congregation of Saint Thomas.

Steve Rockstein
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