If you take a few minutes and look at the media’s portrayal of Orthodox Jews in 2022, it’s not a great look. Jewish people are often made into caricatures — only portrayed in the most stereotypical way. When stories about the Orthodox community are highlighted, they’re usually about a damaged individual leaving the faith or extremists who are awful to be around. It’s rare to find a positive representation of Jews in mainstream media.
One way to problem-solve? Get Orthodox Jewish film makers involved. Then they, like other writers of diverse cultures and religions, can tell stories about experiences that they identify with and educate the public in the process. We can’t just rely on Hollywood to change immediately — we need to be part of that change by being proactive in our storytelling.
Someone who’s part of the solution is Neta Ariel — an Orthodox Jewish woman who has done groundbreaking work in Israel as the director at Ma’ale Film School. The work the school is creating has touched people all over the world — the alumni of the only Jewish film school with majority religious students have made shows that are widely popular, such as Shtissel, Srugim, Shababnikim.
In fact, a movie by the graduates from Ma’ale Film School in Jerusalem won the 2022 Yugo BAFTA Student Award! Girl No. 60472, by Shulamit Lifshitz and Oriel Berkovits, marks the first finalist to represent Israel, much less win an award at the UK equivalent of the Oscars. That the winners are two Orthodox Jewish women makes this an even more monumental achievement. The film combines drama and animation and is based on the director’s memories as the granddaughter of a Holocaust survivor, who recorded her life in a personal diary during the Holocaust: deemed “a deep and emotional film that brings to extraordinary artistic expression the experiences of the third generation of Holocaust survivors” by the judges.
How did Neta become involved in such a trailblazing institution? Neta was born on a kibbutz near Haifa to a religious family. After serving in the IDF (the Israeli Defense Force), she studied communications — film schools didn’t exist in Israel at the time — working as a researcher in Israeli television, where she learned how to write. She’d always loved to work behind the scenes, and also appreciated culture and art. When Ma’ale was established 32 years ago, Neta’s contacts offered her a position at the school. 27 years ago, she became the academic director, and 21 years ago she became the director of the entire school. “It’s an amazing place,” she says. For one thing, she loves working with young people who have dreams of telling stories through film and television. Another, is that most of the students at Ma’ale come from an Orthodox Jewish background. “The school has a Jewish agenda — it doesn’t say that we force them [the students] to make stories about Judaism or that way of life, but […] because of their background they’re telling stories about their life on social topics and Jewish topics too.” Neta proudly declares that they are different from all the other film schools in Israel, producing a unique voice and stories — and she loves it.
How did this school come to be? More than thirty years ago, there was only one place to study filmmaking in Israel — Tel Aviv University. It was rather secular and it was already rare for Orthodox Jewish people to study filmmaking at that time. Then a group of people who worked in communication and news channels saw the lack of religious people working in media. Since then, numerous programs of study for filmmaking have opened in Israel, and each one is different. Ma’ale is unique in that they have a filmmaking track, scriptwriting, and a unique track for Ultra-Orthodox women for filmmaking. Classes are small — they have 15 to 18 students — as this is a boutique film school that prioritizes getting to know its students and helping them achieve their dreams and make the best artwork they can. While writing can be done in English and spoken English is permitted on campus, the classes are conducted in Hebrew and therefore students must be fluent speakers.
Many of the students come from a Modern Orthodox background, ie. individuals who grew up in Orthodox families, studied in Orthodox high schools, and attended national service or served in the IDF. Not all of the students remain of the same mindset that they had growing up — some become more secular, some become more religious. Each class has a mix, and has an influence in the projects within a given class. One of Ma’ale’s goals is to have every student feel comfortable and welcome to tell their stories. Ma’ale welcomes religious students in a way that other film schools do not. For example, secular programs will have students attend productions on Saturdays, which excludes Orthodox Jewish students. Ma’ale has religious leaders on call who students can reference to help them tell their stories and also has a schedule based on the Jewish calendar.
People ultimately tell the stories they want to tell which is why the establishment of diverse writers really matters. While there are Jewish people in Hollywood, those are often unaffiliated Jews who write about generalized topics that don’t necessarily connect to their heritage because they are not connected to their heritage. As such they might not feel comfortable telling authentic pieces in which Jewishness is something positive or neutral vs the enemy or in a joking manner. Orthodox Jewish writers and creators, however, are more likely to authentically and organically include weave Judaism in their stories.
When asked about her take on the Western world’s new fascination with Israeli media, Neta cites the professionalism of Israeli filmmaking and television, and the uniqueness of Israeli storytelling. Not only are Western platforms looking for stories that have not been told before, but Israel has such a complex social environment and a blend of perspectives that it can produce incredibly nuanced serials and movies.
Shows like Shtissel are not just appealing to Western audiences, but even intrigue and spark change in Israeli audiences. The various strata of Jewish groups are often emotionally and mentally disconnected, with secular Jews treating the Ultra-Orthodox as “other.” Shows like Shtissel made Ultra-Orthodox communities more relatable to secular Jews — as well as the whole world. In addition to connecting students with streaming platforms like Netflix, Ma’ale also has contacts in Hollywood. When these contacts visit Israel to select content to promote, they visit Ma’ale to speak to the students, run workshops, and network. Hopefully this is just the start of the impact they’re making!