When Maya Zinshtein and Abie Troen began work on “Til Kingdom Come,” there weren’t many other documentaries that they could look to for reference when it came to charting the unlikely alliance of the Christian evangelical movement and the Jewish conservatives in Israel, so the two started thinking of other films where opposites attract.
“We imagined it to be a little bit of a romantic comedy…,” says Troen, just before Zinshtein interjects.
“I don’t know about a romantic comedy…,” laughs Zinshtein, known for her hard-hitting investigative reporting.
“Definitely not a Jennifer Aniston kind of a film,” assures Troen. “But two sides that say ‘I love you’ and [see] where that love takes them. As we’re seeing now in dozens of Q & As we’re doing across the United States, people react to it like a horror movie where one partner is kidnapped by the other or the narrative is hijacked by another group, but sometimes it felt like one [genre], sometimes it felt like the other and that’s what you love about documentary filmmaking.”
No matter how “Til Kingdom Come” is received, it never fails to engage or surprise as it looks into the increasing political power of the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews, an organization that originated in America that has presented itself as a philanthropic enterprise to aid Holocaust survivors and lift people out of poverty in Israel. However, in recent years, it’s come to serve a different purpose as its goal of protecting Israeli statehood has drawn the considerable interest of Evangelical Christians, who see a common cause in having a clear command over Jerusalem where it is foretold the rapture will unfold.
That prediction has led to a transfer of wealth in the hundreds of millions of dollars over the years from low-income regions across the American South such as Middlesboro, Kentucky where Zinshtein and Troen set their cameras up in the Binghamtown Baptist Church, and although one would like to think it’s a desire for unity that is leading to this generosity, “Til Kingdom Come” shows its effects are exclusionary, from the Palestinians, who remain in exile and will no doubt be targeted by the Fellowship’s support of the Israel Defense Forces, or the countless discriminatory policies that the right wings of these religions can in fact agree on and make part of their overall lobbying efforts. The film not only elucidates what goals are shared by these extemists, but specifically to the film, a matter of succession when both Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein, the founder of the Fellowship, and William Bingham, the pastor at Binghamtown are in the midst of passing down their practice to their children Yael and Boyd, respectively, raising questions of responsibilities that they have moving forward that go beyond the scope of their individual organization.
As with the most interesting love stories, “Til Kingdom Come” finds connection in some of the most unusual places, including the one it makes to an audience and with the film arriving this week in virtual cinemas after a fall festival run that included stops in Chicago and DOC NYC, Zinshtein and Troen spoke about their collaboration and having the foresight to film during the Trump Administration when the power of the Fellowship could be seen at its most potent.
How did you get interested in this?
Maya Zinshtein: After I finished my previous story “Forever Pure,” I’d been searching for my next project in the summer of 2017. I was asked to help on a different project where the Christian evangelical involvement in Israel was just a small part in it, but that drove me to start to look in this direction. Once I found myself for a month reading about this topic until five a.m., I understood this is probably the right direction. And it was a combination of understanding on a documentary level, this issue hasn’t been explored at all, but it was also pretty clear we’re heading towards very interesting times for this bond because the United States had a brand new president that was heavily backed by this community and promises had been given during the campaign, so it was interesting for me on a political level to follow the story and of course as in all documentaries, it went beyond my expectations.
Abie Troen: When Trump came to power four years ago, it was like a moment of reckoning of what does it say about the United States, and [for] myself being Israeli and American and Jewish and gay, a lot of questions came up. What really inspired me in Maya’s approach to this story was a desire to show a big picture, really connect all sorts of dots of what does this say about U.S. domestic politics and [the separation of] church and state and at the same time, [what] makes the different believers tick, who they are as people, and why they believe what they believe. So Maya and I spent the greater part of the past four years in church, unpacking many of those big questions that haunted me in 2016, to find a nuanced answer to them by 2020.
Maya Zinshtein: The reality is always much more wild than what we can imagine. I was totally sure that the moving of the American Embassy to Jerusalem would happen at the end of my third act, but it actually happened at the end of my first. [laughs] And I thought that this bond really had a huge impact on my country. In Israel, the next war — it’s never a matter of if, but when and I have a brother in the reserve forces of IDF and he will definitely go and fight, so it was interesting for me in the name of whom we’re fighting these wars.
You’ve said in other interviews that you filmed at churches throughout the U.S. At what point did the church in Binghamtown stand out?
Maya Zinshtein: We started on the Israeli side just because I was here [in Tel Aviv], but the first thing was basically to map all of the key players of this bond from the Jewish side and the Fellowship of Christians and Jews. Rabbi Eckstein, of course, was one of the main figures that led this bond over the last 40 years, so we started from there and actually, our first filming day with them was in Mar-a-Lago at their annual gala event, which was a pretty incredible place to start. As we were moving forward, we were trying to understand who are the people who actually donate all these millions and millions of dollars to the fellowship. It was important to remember that most the money for the fellowship comes from individuals, so you have people that donate $40 monthly, but the Binghamtown community are special in the sense that they donate as a community, so that makes them major donors of this huge fellowship. It’s basically a very poor place gives so much money to this huge organization.
We wanted to tell this story through characters [rather than be] a political expose because the basis of this bond is actually on the grassroots [levels] and it depends on these people donating from their [limited] money for this cause of this place that is so far from them, but they still have an Israeli flag in front of their church. Once we visited Middlesboro, we understood that there could be something really interesting, [also because of] this comparison between two young people – Boyd and Yael, that raises questions of legacy and family, so it all came together.
Was there anything that happened that changed your ideas of what this could be?
Abie Troen: One of the most important statements that was made during our test screenings when people saw the evolving cuts here in Los Angeles at the Sundance Institute [was when] someone said, “I never thought I would see so much of myself in an evangelical pastor from Kentucky and never did I realize how deep the divide is between us.” Those two ideas were something that Maya and I experienced on a personal level while filming like, “Oh, we see eye to eye on so many things. We’re both humans.” We’d talk about our grandparents and our parents and how ideas have passed down from generation to generation. Then when we’d get down to those ideas, we’d actually see there are very real limits. The extent of that was something that we experienced just by spending so much time in this world.
Maya Zinshtein: Also when you hear about political influence, that’s something difficult to measure. It’s something so amorphous, but the access that we succeeded to get into events had never been seen before, like the annual summit of Christians United for Israel [where you see] the meetings of the settlers with the senators and high-ranking American politicians, and you can actually see how the machine is working from within. I remember Abie and I standing in this event, seeing 5000 people literally prepared with talking points what to say – now you go to Capitol Hill and you say that and that and you need to say to your representative that President Trump needs to cut aid to the Palestinians. Then I spoke with quite a few of [these attendees] and they didn’t really understand what it means, but they went there and they were so enthusiastic and a month later, Trump actually cut aid to the Palestinians. So this was mind-blowing for me.
Abie Troen: We went behind doors to the ROC Republican Study Committee, which is the biggest faith-based caucus on the capital, and there were between 100 and 200 congressmen, senators and extremely influential organization heads [of groups] like the Family Research Group. Millions and millions of dollars into anti-LGBT legislation, Christian Right organizations [were] in that room and the head of the Samaria region in Israel, a right-wing Jew, entered with a small delegation of three. The day opened with the ROC celebrating the fact that transgender [people] were banned that morning from the U.S. Army and the room erupted into euphoric applause. Everyone was like, “This is our day. We managed to pass the laws that we wanted.” There was a prayer following that and the next thing you saw was a settler come on stage and say, “Us Israelis and you evangelicals, we are best friends.” And that struck us for two reasons – one seeing a delegation of three in a room of 200 did not seem like a fair balance. Maya and I thought it was like a mouse riding on the back of an elephant. But the second was that we realized that Jews represented something to this group like transgender [people] did, which is to say they weren’t people. They weren’t human beings as individuals. They were just some sort of piece in religious doctrine that was pushed forward by a huge political force. Seeing that was like a huge dark mirror, like “Okay, we need to think very, very carefully about what are the next steps our country needs to take.”
It’s got to be interesting when doors are opening to you as far as access when you’re Israeli and at the same time, you’re watching how that identity is being used by others.
Maya Zinshtein: Yeah, I think Abie and I never felt so Jewish in our lives than when we filmed this documentary. [laughs] That’s the thing you understand, as Abie said as a Jewish person and as an Israeli person especially, you have a role in their story and it’s a very important role. On one hand, people come to you and say to you, “We love you,” but then you start to ask yourself what does it mean? Like how can you love me if you don’t know me even? This started as a film about love because it was interesting to understand what that actually means, but then it was going down the rabbit hole and discover all the complexities under this word “love.”