Wednesday, February 21, 2018 11:11 am Last modified: 10:26 am

Documentary Film Puts V.I. Synagogue in International Spotlight

The interior of the St. Thomas Synagogue

The historic St. Thomas Synagogue – the oldest synagogue under the American flag and one of only four synagogues in the world with a sand floor – is getting international attention with the release of Steve Rockstein’s documentary film “Sand on the Floor.”

The film, currently on the film festival circuit, has won laurels from the Hollywood International Independent Documentary Film Association, the Miami Independent Film Festival and the Near Nazareth Film Festival in Israel.  The St. Thomas premiere will take place at 7 p.m., Saturday, March 3, at Antilles School’s Prior-Jollek Hall.

“This film chronicles the journey of the Jews who settled here after being forced to leave behind their lives in Spain and Portugal in order to practice their religion,” said Rockstein, “and takes us through centuries of history, right up to the challenges of survival in today’s world.”

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Uncommonly, there is no narrator in this documentary. Instead, the dialog from hundreds of hours of interviews is woven together to create one continuous conversation.

“I wanted to present the authentic voices of the Jewish people –  their opinions, passion and expertise – without a filter.”

Those voices include historians, professors, writers, rabbis, many congregants and native-Virgin Islander Dorothy Isaacs, who is a direct descendant of the congregation’s 18th Century founders.

“Sand on the Floor” caught the eye of nationally-known film critic Susan Granger. Her review concludes, “On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, ‘Sand on the Floor’ is an enlightening 8, lifting the spirit and nurturing the soul.”

The epilogue – shot in a moving car, ‘60s cinema-noir style – turns the journey into something deeply personal, revealing the true source of inspiration for this project of passion.

“I never intended to shoot this scene, feeling it would distract from the incredible history of this congregation.  But four in the film had other ideas.  And when four rabbis tell you to do something, you better do it!”

“The scene was stressful to film, hard to edit and painful to watch.’ Rockstein said, “but if it helps shine a light into the dark corner of child sexual abuse, then I’m proud that I included it.”

Granger writes “While Rockstein duly acknowledges how the two devastating 2017 hurricanes have challenged island living, his powerful epilogue divulges this astutely observational filmmaker’s journey back to Judaism.”

Asher Federman, the Chabad Rabbi on St. Thomas, called the film “candid and compelling, informative and inspirational.”

Well-known as a photographer, Rockstein transitioned from still to moving images in 2012. This is his first feature-length film. The project received fiscal management sponsorship from the Community Foundation of the Virgin Islands.

“To be a first-time filmmaker and receive the notice I’ve been getting has been incredibly rewarding.  Everyone who has seen the film has been moved by it.  You don’t have to be Jewish to love ‘Sand on the Floor.’”

The documentary will premiere on St. Thomas on March 3 at Prior-Jollek Hall.  Tickets, which include a catered reception, cost $30. They can be purchased at The Fruit Bowl, Phoenix Visions Salon and Rhiannon’s or via PayPal.

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