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As a Chicago teen in the 70s, Danny Alpert remembers awakening suddenly one night with the realization that he wasn't cut out to be a rabbi liked he'd planned.
Instead Alpert went away to film school in Israel, where he remained for 15 years, until the scarcity of job opportunities and the trauma of SCUD missile attacks during Gulf War I sent him packing for home.
Reacclimating to life in the States, Alpert was struck by the tension he found here, between ancient traditions and contemporary concerns, compared to the more seamless integration between the two he saw in people living in the Holy Land.
This disparity stuck with Alpert for years, and as he recalled his own near-miss with religious vocation, he wondered: how do young people preparing for lives of spiritual leadership reconcile the seeming contradictions between the practices of their faith and the pressures of the secular world.
Alpert explores these questions in his new documentary miniseries The Calling, profiling Muslim, Jewish and Christian clergy at the beginnings of their careers.
Among the stars of the film is Tahera Ahmad, who became only the second Muslim woman chaplain at a co-ed university in the U.S. when she took her position at Northwestern in September.
Excerpts from The Calling are playing in free live screenings with panel discussions around the country this weekend. (As I write this, there's one happening at The Chicago Cultural Center.) It premieres Monday 12/20 at 8 p.m. on PBS's Independent Lens.
Alpert and his producers push their inquiry further with the ongoing interactive project What's Your Calling?, an online community and video archive where snowboarders, Muay Thai Fighters, activists and inventors share the life's work they've been called to do.