Robert Isenberg: Documenting community life


Robert Isenberg, 41, became multi­media producer at the Jewish Alliance of Greater Rhode Island in May. The Cranston resident’s work will appear across the platforms of Jewish Rhody Media, including in the paper and online. This profile is the first in a series of first-person essays written by staff members.

In the summer of 1998, I decided I would make a movie. I had my parents’ old camcorder. My high school friends were willing, if reluctant, to help out. We had plenty of places to shoot, as we lived among farms and orchards. True, rural Vermont wasn’t the ideal location to film a hardboiled mafia epic, but I like to think we did our best.

Nearly 25 years later, that ill-fated VHS tape has disappeared into a cardboard box, but my love for moving pictures is stronger than ever. I returned to videography in 2010, when high-quality digital imaging became simple and affordable, and I hit the ground running. My first feature-length documentary, “The Trail,” was aired on WQED public television, and I was hooked.

My first love has always been writing, a medium that took me to the University of Pittsburgh; to the MFA program at Chatham University; to alt-weeklies and glossy magazines across the country; and to Costa Rica, where I was a staff writer for The Tico Times.

For two decades, I’ve barely lifted my fingertips from the keyboard. This obsessive typing has resulted in a half-dozen books, 17 produced stage plays and thousands of articles, most recently for Providence Monthly.

Storytelling translates readily to film, and I love bolstering words with vivid imagery. I love the physical process of filmmaking, its three-dimensional nature. I love peering through the viewfinder, lining up a shot, and feeling breathless as the composition literally comes into focus. I love just letting a moment unfold. I love the movement, the staging and all the mortal expressions the lens can capture.

Later, at the editing suite, I love sculpting all that raw footage into a watchable tale.

Finding the position of multimedia producer at the Jewish Alliance of Greater Rhode Island was a wondrous surprise. I’m a relative newcomer to Rhode Island, but the state quickly won me over, and I have a strong and lifelong relationship with the Jewish diaspora. Documenting the efforts and achievements of local people is a profound privilege, no matter the what or how.

One day, I’m filming a short documentary for the Jewish Alliance or The next, I’m photographing a challah-baking session at J-Camp. Now, I’m writing a profile of myself for Jewish Rhode Island.

Meanwhile, this community has embraced me from the moment I stepped through the doors of the Alliance’s Dwares Jewish Community Center, in Providence, and I wake up each morning eager to get to work.

Swiftly, the JCC has become a cornerstone of my Rhode Island life. I use the gym on a regular basis. My son attends summer camp at the JCC, and is learning to swim in its pool.

I have bonded with new friends through our shared appreciation for the Jewish Alliance and its many partner organizations. Working here has fueled hours of conversation with my neighbors, who first met on a kibbutz in Israel and have offered limitless insight into the Rhode Island Jewish community.

If that kid in 1998 could have known what he’d be filming in 2021, he’d be more excited than ever to pick up a camera.

Jewish Rhody Media, video