Every Shabbat, a group of 20 senior citizens in Palm Desert gathers to make blessings over electric candles, grape juice, challah, chili, hamburgers and Frosties at their local Wendy’s restaurant. Now, these seniors are the subject of a documentary titled “Wendy’s Shabbat,” which will screen at this year’s Los Angeles Jewish Film Festival, opening on April 25.
The short documentary by Los Angeles resident Rachel Myers, focuses on her 88-year-old grandmother, Roberta Mahler, as she celebrates the Sabbath every week with the Friday night fast-food meal.
Mahler, a widow, resides in Sun Desert with her 13-year-old dog. She previously lived in Los Angeles and used to attend Valley Beth Shalom. In a phone interview with the Journal, Mahler said she’s been going to the Wendy’s Shabbat for four years.
“I go to be with my friends because being out here in the desert is lonely,” Mahler said. “At Wendy’s, it’s a gathering and you feel like you’re with the family. It gives you a nice warm feeling and a feeling of belonging.”
The seniors of Wendy’s Shabbat, many of whom used to live in Los Angeles and were members of Stephen S. Wise Temple, started the group eight years ago. They sit at a long table, say the traditional Friday night prayers together and then schmooze for an hour or so before heading home to their gated communities in their golf carts.
When Myers attended one of their dinners, she decided she had to document it. She brought her mother — Mahler’s daughter — Abby Myers, on board to produce.
“There is a lot of isolation that happens in our modern world, and I find the seniors in our film inspiring in how they connect to celebrate their religion and friendships at a fast-food restaurant,” said Rachel, who is making her directorial debut with the documentary. “In a way it is essential, because it illustrates how people make a forum in many different circumstances to reach out to one another and build community.”
“Wendy’s Shabbat” took two days to shoot. After she completed the film, Rachel promoted it by uploading trailers to Vimeo and YouTube. Her effort paid off. The trailers have been viewed nearly 200,000 times, and the film is among 55 out of 4,754 submissions accepted to the Tribeca Film Festival, under the “Home Sweet Home” shorts section.
“It is so interesting to see how this film is resonating with people,” Abby said. “I think the film provides a ‘feel good’ reflective moment of what is important in life. Being part of something, recognizing ritual in one’s life, friends, family [and] purpose [are] all told with a very authentic voice to the film.”
The idea behind the Wendy’s Shabbat is also spreading, according to Rachel, who said there are now groups in Toronto, Tennessee and Boca Raton, Fla., “who, after seeing the film, were inspired to make a Shabbat gathering at a restaurant. It’s so amazing that sharing this one senior group’s story would be inspiration to others.”
Representatives of Wendy’s also saw the trailers and contacted Rachel. “They were very touched by it” and sent a letter and gifts to the seniors to thank them, she said.
“When Rachel thought to document Wendy’s Shabbat, she came with a full crew, with lights and cameras,” said Mahler, who will be going to the Tribeca festival with her family for the film’s debut on April 21. “I thought, ‘This is sweet.’ I never thought it would grow like this. Whoever thought it would go so viral? It’s really amazing to me.”
For more about the “Wendy’s Shabbat” documentary, visit wendysshabbat.com.