By Susan Josephs
The Jewish Week

Like many other young Israelis, Shachar Zefania is no slouch when it comes to travels in Nepal, Thailand and other Far East destinations. But rather than simply return to Israel and store his experiences away in a photo album, Zefania had grander ambitions. He wanted to make a film that would convey the spirit of both his own journey and of a certain Passover seder in Katmandu. He wanted to send a pointed if gently transmitted message to an increasingly factionalized Israeli society.

"It's a sad thing what's going on in Israel," the 30-year-old graduate of Tel Aviv University's film school says, of the hostility between religious and secular Jews. "People are growing so far apart. In the movie, I try to show there's another way."

On a shoestring $40,000 budget, Zefania made his first film, "Seder Trek," a cinematic plea for peace and religious tolerance among Israelis. Essentially, the film suggests that once out of their country and particularly when traversing the Far East, young, secular Israelis become far less hostile toward Judaism. How else to explain the attendance of some 1,000 backpackers who happily sing Haggadah songs in a tent at an annual Chabad-sponsored Passover seder? How else to explain the scores of people accepting boxes of matzah from Chabad emissaries who comb the backpackers' district in Katmandu - in search of Jews thirsty for a little Yiddishkeit as they wander the realm of Shiva and Buddha?

After several screenings in Israel, "Seder Trek" had its U.S. premiere at The New York Film Academy last week. Some 70 people - a blend of Israelis, filmmakers and Jewish communal workers - attended the Israeli Consulate-sponsored screening and subsequent discussion of the hour-long documentary. "This is a film that's really about relationships between people," Zefania told the audience.

Set primarily in Nepal, the film bobs back and forth between two stories. One concerns Zefania's trek to Gokio Peak, in the Mount Everest region of the Himalayas; the other focuses on the inspiration and preparations behind the Chabad Seder in Katmandu, billed as "the largest seder in the world." Of the 3,000 Israelis estimated to be annually wandering around Nepal during the month of April, about one-third attend the seder. "Everyone knows about the seder in Nepal," said Zefania.

More sweet than sophisticated, "Seder Trek" contains the imprimatur of a man who made a deeply personal investment in his project. One of seven children, Zefania grew up in Jerusalem, within a traditional household where "some of us were religious and some of us weren't." Though he became secular, his family life taught him "to respect religion and see there are different perspectives."

The idea for the film came about in 1997, when Zefania traveled to Japan around the High Holy Day season and searched for a place to spend Yom Kippur. An Israeli living in Tokyo invited him for the holiday, which he spent with several Chabad emissaries. The Chabadniks impressed Zefania because though they may offer Chanukah candles and Sabbath meals to Jewish travelers all over the world, "they don't try and make people religious," he says. "I think Chabad is doing a great thing."

Zefania's admiration for Chabad pervades his film - especially when he turns his camera on the charismatic Asi Spiegel, who organized the Katmandu seders for several years. "I have no intent of making anyone religious," Spiegel announces to a crowd of Israelis who wildly applaud him before commencing with the seder festivities.

In "Seder Trek," everyone, in fact, appears to get along splendidly. Zefania teaches Hebrew to his Nepalese trekking guide and porter and never fails to befriend village children and adults who maintain the Himalayan tea houses and rest stops. In the streets of Katmandu, the Israelis conduct themselves like model tourists. One would never know from watching this film that in the Far East travel culture, Israelis don't always have the most pristine reputation and that many a Nepalese trekking guide or tea house owner will refuse to do business with them.

Zefania's interests, however, did not lie in focusing on the behavior of certain Israeli travelers. The film's final scene, featuring him as a guest at Spiegel's wedding back in Israel, makes his ultimate point: that people might be different but that does not mean they can't be friends. "Outside of Israeli, they can see Asi as a human being," says Zefania of his secular peers. "So when they go back, they know that Asi isn't just 'some yarmulke.'"

Currently seeking a commercial run in the United States, Zefania says his film "has been very popular in Israel" and hopes that American audiences would find it equally compelling. "In my life, I will do better work on films, but I don't think I'll ever get better feedback," he says. "This film touches people. There's something in it for everybody."

After the New York screening, one audience member who identified herself as an employee of a Jewish organization echoed Zefania's belief. "I feel very touched by this," she told him. "Jews fight each other here also. I feel this film comes from your heart and it has gone into mine."