Rebbee ben R’ Shlomo Hill Breaks New Ground With ‘Berel and The Bus Driver’


rebbee-hillIf a picture is worth a thousand words, imagine the impact that the thousands of audio-visual pictures in a film can have on the minds and imaginations of impressionable children. Audio-visual messages mesmerize viewers, capturing their attention, engraving their messages on young minds and hearts.

As with all technological innovations, the audio-visual medium can be utilized for positive educational experiences, instilling in children fundamental middos tovos which can form the basis of their future adult lives.  

Utilizing creativity in combination with technological advances to teach Torah ideals to Jewish children throughout North America is what “Berel and the Bus Driver” is all about.

“We’re constantly on the lookout for innovative approaches to learning,” says Rabbi Dovid Nojowitz, National Director of Torah Umesorah. Considering the proliferation of distractions surrounding today’s student, upholding the organization’s sixty-plus-year mandate of strengthening Torah education across the country is a challenging goal. In a world in which cutting-edge visuals have become the new norm, Torah Umesorah contemplated a robust, exciting, inspiring Jewish production.

Meeting professional standards in film production to create a film synonymous with Torah ideals would demand an enormous outlay of talent, expertise and effort, most of which would be breaking new ground throughout. There was a need and a demand, but it was the how of producing such an ambitious initiative that was most daunting.

Unbeknownst to the educational organization, the missing piece to the puzzle was coming to a realization of its own.

 “It all started two years ago, during Mussaf Shemoneh Esrei of Yom Kippur,” says Rabbi Yehoshua Leib Hill, better known as “Rebbee Hill” to the thousands of fans of his thirty-plus audio dramatizations of parsha, historiah, and inspiring Jewish stories. “One of the holiest moments of the holiest day of the calendar, and I’m standing there, thinking, ‘Ribbono Shel Olam, with the strengths and abilities You’ve given me, what is it that You expect of me to accomplish this year?'”

Hill comes from a family famed for its prowess in acting, creativity and humor, talents that Rebbee Hill has been blessed with. But if such gifts obligated one to greater achievement, he wondered, what sort of goals did Hashem want him to pursue? The sun crept downward, the tefillos slowly wound toward Ne’ilah, and suddenly it all came together.

“Somehow, I just felt as though I knew that now is the time,” Rebbee Hill says. “Our world has become so much more frenetic, full of dangerous influences and distractions. Yes, I’ve been making CDs for years, and have received tremendous positive feedback, boruch Hashem. Now the time had come to reach out and touch neshamos with a direct, electric charge, in a way more persuasive and pervasive than before. Voices and music might have once been enough, but I realized that the time had come for us to harness the power of our most potent sense of all: sight.       

“What we see is imprinted indelibly on our consciousness. The eyes are windows to the soul: If you hear something that inspires you enough, your brain envisions an image to go along with the words, and you work from there. But when you see that image to start with – when the inspiration unfurls directly before your eyes – that message plunges directly into your neshama. An audio presentation could entertain and encourage, but a film crafted with the combined efforts of professional talent and mechanchim could enflame and inspire with unparalleled immediacy and power. That’s what we needed…and I knew I had to try.”

It was a goal that would be neither simple nor easy to fulfill. Soon after his Yom Kippur decision, Rebbee Hill began work on “The Legend of the Klei Yakar,” writing, directing and performing the story of the great sage. Expense was lavished on every aspect of production – for one, Hill rented an honest-to-goodness castle for thousands of dollars to ensure a realistic setting for the story – but despite the professionalism of the project and the acclaim with which it was greeted, Hill was not completely satisfied.

“Originally, we weren’t sure if people would be receptive to a live-action film, so we started with a presentation composed of still photographs,” he explains. “The feedback we got was that people prefer live, dynamic film, not just stills, and so we went back to the drawing board.”

Inspired by friend Mendy Pollack’s suggestion of updating traditional meshalim and sippurei tzaddikim within the framework of contemporary situations and characters, Hill began thinking. Much like a jeweler reinventing a ring with a fresh setting to display its diamond to greater advantage without tampering with its cut, he began spinning a new, compelling shell of a story outside the core value of the old tale. Caravans, deserts and camels faded away, to be replaced by their modern-day counterparts: bikers, bears, airplanes, and a host of hilarious characters. Soon, “Berel the Bus Driver” was taking on a life of its own.

In years past, the cost of shooting and editing such a project would have been prohibitive. However, with the advent of the digital age – and its high-definition cameras and industry-standard production programs readily available to the public – Rebbee Hill’s dream was at last within reach. The expense of hiring the talent needed for the filming and editing would still be considerable, however, and financing was still an intimidating hurdle to overcome.

Rebbee Hill was undaunted. “From the start, we saw incredible siyata diShmaya in this project,” he says. No sooner had he finished the script than a Divine Hand gently tugged on the strings from Above, quietly arranging a meeting of minds in the form of an invitation for him to speak at a Torah Umesorah School Shabbaton in Dallas, Texas. Hill flew down to the Lone Star state with little inkling of how fortuitous the weekend would turn out to be.

Also present at the Shabbaton were Rabbi Nojowitz and Rabbi Avrohom Fruchthandler, National Director and Member of the Presidium of Torah Umesorah, respectively. They watched with interest as, during the course of Shabbos, Rebbee Hill mesmerized the crowd with eight presentations for the adults and children attending the event. By the end of the weekend, Rabbi Nojowitz knew he wanted Rebbee Hill to become involved with the organization.

Approaching Rebbee Hill, he proposed that Rebbee Hill and Torah Umesorah collaborate on further projects – an offer that grew wings when Rebbee Hill began to describe his film, the very project Torah Umesorah had been trying to initiate for months. It wasn’t long before another two minds were sharing Rebbee Hill’s dream.

“We knew what we wanted to do: create a film that would have children experiencing Shabbos in an entirely new way, with a burning desire to honor and delight in this day, the way the protagonist, Berel, does in the film,” Rebbee Hill says. “Torah Umesorah saw the opportunity and started things rolling.”

About a week before Sukkos, Rabbi Zvi Bloom, Executive Director of Torah Umesorah, called with great news: the educational institution had enthusiastically agreed to partner in the enterprise, both in financing “Berel and the Bus Driver” and releasing the final film to schools and communities across America. Within two weeks of Yom Tov’s end, production began.

“It was very tempting to say, ‘Let’s do this slowly, get everything perfectly planned,'” Hill admits. “But, as Pirkei Avos warns us, ‘If not now then when?’ Thanks to Torah Umesorah, we now had the opportunity, and it was time to just run with it. Within two weeks after Yom Tov, the script had been locked, we had a film crew together, and we were ready to start eight intense days of shooting.”

This speed was made possible, in part, by the way the film had been written.

“There was very little location scouting needed, because I’d written the storyline with the actual Lakewood settings in mind,” Rebbee Hill laughs. “When I wrote about a character walking down the street, in my mind’s eye, I was watching him walk down Clifton Avenue and pick up a dozen rolls from Gelbstein’s Bakery. So the next, logical step was to actually film it there, instead of having to start looking at different areas and trying to figure out what would suit the story best.”

Thanks to the enthusiasm and largesse of friends and acquaintances, Hill was able to bypass the tedious and time-consuming business of requests and scouting unfamiliar territory to cut straight to filming. Lakewood Committeeman Meir Lichtenstein arranged for Hill’s crew, actors and equipment to have the town at their disposal, while local businesses such as Delta Food Mart and Gelbstein’s gladly opened their doors. After noted mechanech Rabbi Yisroel Gelbwachs reviewed the script and saw its potential, he allowed some of the film to be shot on the grounds of his school, Yeshiva Tiferes Torah. Production headquarters and many of the indoor sets shared the same roof, a vacant house offered by friend Moshe Mendlowitz for the duration of the project. Mr. Spiro provided the most unusual item, the star of the show: a fully-operational ice cream truck. Nearly all of the actors were friends of Hill’s and fellow Lakewood residents.

That’s not to say that viewers familiar with the area will find the setting ho-hum. As seen through the skilled lenses of the professional film crew, even the most commonplace locations around the town are newly compelling, and recognizing landmarks becomes more of a thrill than a letdown.

“It was incredible,” reports one of the actors. “Every single shot had an entire truckload of equipment behind it – screens, lights, cables, generators. They even had a temporary roof shelter for rainy-day shoots… And then there was the crew: the director; the technical producer; the creative producer; the make-up artist, who would touch up our makeup throughout the day; two lighting specialists, or grips; the art director/wardrobe director and his assistant; a sound specialist, a cinematographer and his assistants… Each and every angle, shot and word was planned, shot, reviewed, and shot again. Just watching the process was fascinating… I can’t wait to see the finished product!”

The most important preparation of all did not involve actual equipment or script, however.

“Before we started anything, I knew that the most vital part of the entire project was to create a foundation of inspiration and chizuk to draw upon while writing, acting and filming,” Hill says. “What use is excellent cinematography or great acting if the heart and soul of the mission, the actual limud, isn’t burnished to perfection first?”

In preparation, he learned many seforim on Kedushas Shabbos – particularly Rav Shimshon Pincus’ sefer Nefesh Shimon – numerous times before beginning the film.

“I like to think of it as ‘Jewish method acting,'” he says, twinkling. “To be honest, though, I’ve been the one to benefit – my own Shabbos hasn’t been the same since! We now use olive oil, usher in the Shabbos Queen ten minutes before the zeman, say Shir Hashirim… Our Shabbos is so much more of an exalted experience than it ever was before.”

The Shabbos before shooting was scheduled to begin, Hill spent the Friday night meal with his rebbe so as to imbibe of the joyous spirit of Shabbos he so wanted to convey in the film. Additionally, the script was reviewed and revised by a respected mechanech before footage was shot.

“This isn’t just entertainment,” Hill explains. “We’re doing this for the children, for our children, for the next generation. It’s more than just something to enjoy. It’s taking education to the next level, and the spiritual preparation we invest in it has to reflect that.”

Thanks to Torah Umesorah, the distribution scheme for the film represents a refreshingly new approach as well. Instead of being shipped directly to stores for purchase, the film will be released over Chanukah to hundreds of schools nationally.

Rabbi Dovid Weinstein notes, “What we’re doing is giving every Torah Umesorah school across the country the opportunity to provide enthralling entertainment to their students and communities by selling very reasonably-priced tickets to their viewers…and then giving a percentage of ticket sales back to the schools themselves. It’s a win-win situation in which everyone benefits both financially and spiritually. Parents won’t have to spend excessively for their children’s activities, while schools will have a potent tool for further discussion and learning.”

All in all, it’s a thrilling new frontier, rich with possibility.

“We’re tremendously excited about it,” Rabbi Nojowitz says.

Hill agrees. “It’s an excellent innovative tool to be added to the chinuch field,” he says.

{Yossi Newscenter}


  1. Erev Shabbos Kodesh Parshas Vaiyeishev
    Time: 2:55 PM Pacific Standard Time

    To Rabbi Yehoshua Leib Hill, Rabbi Dovid Nojowitz, Rabbi Avrohom Fruchthandler, and everyone else involved in this important project:

    Yahser Kochachem for your magnificent wonderful work; may you have much B’racha V’Hatzlacha with it!

    For those people who are not connected with any school, how will they be able to get a copy of the film?