Debra Plotkin, Toronto film fest founder, dies at 45

The daughter of a rabbi, Debra Plotkin always joked that she was in "the Jewish business."

And while she decided against becoming a rabbi herself, in her own way she did indeed follow in her father's footsteps, spreading her own brand of Jewish philosophy throughout her life.

Plotkin, the founding artistic director of the Toronto Jewish Film Festival and the sister of Janis Plotkin, executive artistic director of the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival, died in Oakland Nov. 7 after a protracted battle with breast cancer. She was 45.

"She was sunshine. She had a zest for life," said longtime friend Estherelke Kaplan, a Toronto psychotherapist. "She knew a great deal about Jewishness, and wanted to bring it into everybody's life, to get to really know people and help them find each other and their community."

Plotkin decided to inaugurate the Toronto Jewish Film Festival in the early 1990s, influenced by her sister; her cousin Deborah Kaufman, who founded the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival; and her mother, Sylvia, who founded a Jewish museum. Plotkin did it the way she did most things in life — with gusto.

"When she decided to help found the film festival, she put all her energy into finding films that would motivate us, make us feel proud and create a surge of Jews interested in telling stories," recalled Michelle Rothstein, Plotkin's former assistant with the Toronto Jewish Film Festival. "She was also a great storyteller, one of the best. She used to sit down and tell a story, and you'd laugh and cry at the same time. They were always poignant enough that you wanted to tell them to someone else."

Plotkin's own story began in Arizona, where her father, Albert, is rabbi emeritus at Scottsdale's Temple Beth Israel. Her mother ran the Sylvia Plotkin Judaica Museum at the synagogue until her death in 1996, also of breast cancer.

Debra Plotkin's upbringing solidified her Jewish identity, but, growing older and traveling around the globe, she constantly expanded her worldview. As a teenager in the early '70s, she traveled to Jerusalem and worked on a kibbutz. She also worked at Camp Swig, the camp of the Reform movement in Saratoga.

"The fact that our father was a rabbi had a deep impact on us because of who he was, as a positive role model," said Janis Plotkin. "My sister was an ardent feminist. So she took what was her birthright and evolved it into her own spiritual connection to Judaism in a way that was egalitarian and very spiritual. I would say that she was a very consciously spiritual person, and her Jewish identity was a prominent part of who she was."

Janis Plotkin saw her sister's founding of the Toronto Jewish Film Festival as "the coming together of all the things that mattered to her."

The Toronto festival quickly grew into one of the largest in the city, and Debra became well-known in both Jewish and non-Jewish circles.

"Within a year, she became a celebrity in our town," Kaplan recalled. "As soon as she came to Canada, right when she came through the door, she immediately made sure that everyone she met, met everyone else. She had a real sense of community. Her Friday night dinners were an invitation everyone wanted to be at. When we have her memorial, I know we're going to have hundreds and hundreds of people."

Plotkin left the film festival in 1996, and attended the Canadian Film Center in hopes of becoming a film producer. Shortly after graduating, she learned of her cancer and decided to make her documentary about her struggle with the disease.

"She just had an energy about her; you couldn't help but feel good when you were around her," said Rothstein. "She made it her purpose to make sure everyone felt loved and comfortable. She took care of a lot of people and tried to help everybody."

Plotkin is survived by her father, Rabbi Albert Plotkin of Phoenix; sister Janis Plotkin of Oakland; and her partner, Adela Gonzales del Valle of Oakland.

Donations can be sent to the Sylvia Plotkin Judaica Museum, c/o Temple Beth Israel, 10460 56th Street, Scottsdale, AZ 85253, or Frameline, 346 Ninth St., S.F., CA 94103.

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi is the managing editor at Mission Local. He is a former editor-at-large at San Francisco magazine, former columnist at SF Weekly and a former J. staff writer.