10 minutes with … Ilana Trachtman

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c. 2008 Religion News Service

NEW YORK _ Ilana Trachtman wasn’t looking for her next film project when she attended an unconventional Rosh Hashanah retreat four years ago; she barely expected to feel a spiritual connection with the “hippie-dippie” service celebrating the Jewish New Year.

When she heard the off-key voice of 12-year-old Lior Liebling joyously chanting behind her, however, she found both: a compelling documentary subject and a new way of praying.

Liebling, who was born with Down syndrome, and his family gave Trachtman complete access to record the devout Reconstructionist Jewish boy’s preparations for his bar mitzvah, the traditional coming-of-age ceremony.

Trachtman talked about the experience of making “Praying With Lior,” now showing at film festivals and independent movie theaters across the country.

Q: What do you hope people take away from this documentary?

A: There are 54 million people in this country with disabilities, but less than half the houses of worship are even handicapped accessible. And if you think about it, that’s the place people should feel most welcome _ their faith community. I really hope people look around and notice there aren’t people with disabilities in their faith communities, and think about what they’re missing out by not being able to pray with the Liors of the world.

Q: Lior’s family says he’s closer to God than most people, and some worshipers even call him the “little rebbe.” What do you think?

A: Lior is able to have a really uncomplicated relationship with prayer. He’s free from cynicism and inhibitions and worrying about the past or the future, so he’s able to be very present and take in beauty and joy and love and happiness on a real minute-by-minute level. It’s a kind of enlightenment that a lot of people aspire to.

Q: What’s it like to watch Lior pray?

A: Well, it made me make a movie! I started making this film because I personally was really frustrated with prayer and just found it lifeless and irrelevant to me. Watching Lior was really inspiring and really moving and it’s infectious. … I understand now that there are a lot of different ways to pray, and the liturgy is not the end-all be-all.

Q: What was the most challenging part of making this film?

A: It’s a really complicated story. It’s about a family, it’s about the way disability affects a family, it’s about the way a community responds to a disability, it’s about the way a community prays, it’s about unconditional love. It was also really hard to capture the experience of spirituality on film. By definition, spirituality is a nonverbal experience, it’s something that happens really deep inside all of us. So, trying to capture Lior’s spirituality, it’s a very intangible quality.

Q: In the film, one of Lior’s religious classmates refers to Down syndrome as a test from God. How does Lior reconcile his disability and the loss of his mother to cancer with his own unwavering faith?

A: I don’t know that Lior has such a complicated theology. Lior’s grandparents were Holocaust survivors, so the unfairness of life is something that’s really a part of their family. They don’t relate losses to God’s will or an act of God.

Q: At one point, Lior’s father, Rabbi Mordechai Liebling, said he feared the bar mitzvah would ultimately be the highlight of his son’s life. Is that still a concern now?

A: It’s a highlight in his life, but not THE highlight by any means. Lior’s very well adjusted, he has great self-esteem. He’s in high school, he’s looking forward to his next Special Olympics competition. He’s not sitting around basking about the glory days of his bar mitzvah. There will be other milestones for him.


A photo of Ilana Trachtman is available via https://religionnews.com.

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