Cinematography without the sin at Maale Jerusalem film school
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Cinematography without the sin at Maale Jerusalem film school

It bills itself as the only Jewish film school in the world.

Founded in 1989, The Maale School of Television, Film & the Arts in Jerusalem has two related goals. It offers a place where religious students can study filmmaking, and its graduates create films that reflect the experiences, sensitivities, and concerns of Israel’s modern Orthodox community.

That makes the movies – which its students create as their senior projects – a natural for Teaneck’s Cong. Rinat Yisrael, said David Jacobowitz of the congregation’s adult education committee. The shul will be screening three short movies from the school Sunday at 7:45 p.m.

“I was struck by how relevant the films are to the issues that religious Jews face anywhere,” he said, “and also how professionally well-made they were.

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A scene from “Shabbos Mother,” top, “The Orthodox Way,” and “Willingly.”

“They represent the personal experience of people grappling with angst over what it means to be religious, how they relate to society, and the many issues that come up for a religious Jew in Israel today.”

Maale has 100 students and more than 200 graduates, 80 percent of whom work in Israel’s television and film industry. The school’s impact is embodied in the popular 2008 Israeli television series “Srugim,” which takes its name from the knitted kippot worn by the modern Orthodox characters. Created by a Maale graduate, it chronicles the life of Orthodox singles in Jerusalem.

The Maale curriculum includes standard courses in all aspects of filmmaking and the history of film, along with some unique Jewish courses, such as one on Judaism and aesthetics. The program is four years, with the second half focused on producing the graduation film.

As an independent institution, Maale is not under specific rabbinic oversight.

“There is a basic sense that the film’s sensibilities should be in line with Jewish sensibilities,” said Harold Berman, the school’s New Jersey-born director of resource development. “You won’t find nudity or hard-core violence, and it actually challenges the filmmakers to dig deeper. Anyone can film a bedroom scene. It doesn’t take much creativity. To hint at things, without having it all out there, requires creativity and requires the students to dig deep, and in the end it produces better films.

“We’re a big tent,” he added. “We do have a rabbi on staff, and the rabbi has a committee. Issues do come up. Not only whether something crosses the line in terms of being too graphic but also ethical issues,” such as whether a documentary film portrays its interview subjects fairly.

The rabbi – Mordechai Vardi – not only heads the school’s Institute for Torah and Creativity, he also heads the school’s screenwriting track, and is studying for a master’s degree at the Tel Aviv University film school.

Berman says the Israeli modern Orthodox community is better connected to the world of culture than its American counterparts.

“It’s not a question of how do we create culture in the Orthodox community and how does it relate to the larger work. Here, it’s what do we have to say to inform Israeli society, what is our place in the Israeli society,” he said.

“For example, if you go to the music conservatory in Jerusalem, you’ll find lots of teachers wearing kippot. I don’t think you’ll find that in Juilliard. The fact that people got together to start an Orthodox film school – it’s more organic here.”

In Teaneck, Jacobowitz agrees that the Maale offers a vision not found in the American Orthodox community.

“It broadens the possibilities that exist for professional development and creativity for Orthodox young people,” he said. “It shows that there are ways to fulfill one’s creative urge that go perhaps beyond the box of what many Orthodox people think are the possibilities.”

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