If you walk into the Sun City Palm Desert Wendy’s location in California at six o’clock on a Friday night, prepare to do a double take at the sight of twenty or so Jewish senior citizens hunched over a set of reserved tables holding hands and reciting Hebrew blessings over grape juice and Baconators, welcoming in the Sabbath.
Myers, a production designer with over fifteen years in the film industry, first heard about the unorthodox Shabbat gathering through her maternal grandmother Roberta Mahler, 88, who is a member of the weekly group.
Mahler was raised in an Orthodox household and grew up regularly observing Shabbat at home. Now, as a widow, Mahler keeps busy playing mahjongg and canasta and looks forward to the drive from the Sun City Retirement Complex where she lives to the local Wendy’s, just a few blocks away.
Wendy’s Shabbat founder Sharon Goodman, 79, explains the genesis of the gathering in the film: “We’re not fancy people, so we figured let’s go down to Wendy’s.” So they did and so it began.
Now eight years later, Wendy’s Shabbat is a well-oiled machine. Lou Silberman, 92, maintains a spreadsheet and follows up each week with group members who take turns bringing the electric candles, challah, and grape juice (Wendy’s doesn’t allow alcohol on the premises).
They also bring their own cookies each week and leave the leftover ones for the team of Wendy’s employees who reserve tables for them every Friday.
The film was shot over the course of two days with a five-woman crew. “After filming, we had a glut of information and had to trim it to ten minutes and I’ve got Lou Silberman asking me, “When are we going to see it? I’m not going to live forever!” she says.
While Silberman did get to see the film, four members of the group—including 97-year old Rabbi Isaiah Zeldin, who led the group’s Friday blessings—passed away this year and are memorialized on the film’s website.
“Oftentimes the elderly are portrayed as weak or sick—but here’s an active group, proud of their heritage, out celebrating life and emphasizing the importance of engaging with other people,” shares Myers.
One thing that took Myers by surprise was her grandmother’s camera presence. “She was such a character on camera. Who’d have thought Nana would be a star at the age of 88?” laughs Myers, who admits at times it was challenging to balance being protective of her grandmother while also being true to being a filmmaker. “Nana is a star. She’s going to film festivals and doing TV interviews now. She’s already asked to be in my next movie,” says an amused Myers.
While Myers’ Nana may have been the only family member on camera, Myer’s mother Abby Myers, a retired elementary school principal, worked tirelessly behind the scenes as the film’s producer.
“My mom has no experience in this field and we had no marketing strategy whatsoever,” laughs Myers. “We just kept submitting to all the festivals. Then one day I got a call from the Tribeca Film Festival asking if I would allow them to feature my film and I was in complete shock. I mean, ‘allow them’! Out of 4754 submissions, they picked 55 films and we were one of them. I called my mom first and then my grandmother to tell them and they were both as shocked as I was,” Myers admits.
News of the Wendy’s Shabbat continued to spread, and suddenly Myers was getting messages from strangers on Facebook asking if they could start their own Wendy’s group. People in Tennessee reached out and said they were going to host a Margaritas and Mexican Shabbat. One Friday night at the Palm Desert location, a stranger came in and gave the cashier $200 to pay for everyone’s meals. Some nights the place was flooded with newcomers, hosting up to 50 participants.
“Wendy’s corporate reached out to us—their board members were tickled by all the attention and they sent the group gift cards and Wendy’s tote bags,” Myers says, still clearly shocked at the film’s appeal.
“I guess people like the story for the same reason I did. It’s touching and inspiring. It reminds me why I got into the business,” Myers continues.
‘Wendy’s Shabbat’ debuts Saturday, April 21 at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York.