Yeshiva University Pulls Provocative Photography Project

Student organizers charge censorship. YU cites 'student sensitivities’ as reason for reneging on support for project highlighting human vulnerabilities.

NEW YORK − A man with “shvartze” − Yiddish for “black” and a derogatory term for African Americans − written across his forehead is one of the many startling images in the “What I Be” photography project, portraits of people with their greatest vulnerability written on their face or arm. It is a project of California-based photographer Steve Rosenfield, who in the rest of his professional life photographs rock bands and bar mitzvahs, and is currently in New York shooting images of young Jews.

More than a half dozen leading universities have brought Rosenfeld’s project to their campuses, and this week he expected to be at Yeshiva University − until the troubled modern Orthodox institution backed out.

Mati Esther Engel, a Stern College for Women student and avid photographer, was visiting a friend at Princeton last spring when she happened upon “What I Be” project photos there. Finding them unexpectedly moving, she thought students at Stern and Yeshiva University’s college for men would enjoy participating. The photographer was interested and Yeshiva University agreed to consider the project, but after four months of intense negotiations, after Rosenfield and student organizers agreed to numerous constraints YU required, and just two weeks before he was to arrive in New York to start taking pictures, YU backed out.

When Engel first approached YU administrators about “What I Be,” they said they were interested but there wasn’t enough organizing time to hold the shoot at Hanukkah time, Engel said. So she and another Stern student, Dasha Sominski, agreed to wait until January and YU agreed to move ahead. Then YU said they needed student signatures to prove widespread interest. Engel and Sominski collected more than 100 in one day. YU administrators said they were unable to supply the $5,000 that universities generally pay Rosenfield to cover his time and expenses. He agreed to accept $1,500. YU told the students they needed to raise the money themselves from various YU clubs. They obtained commitments of $100 from 11 different clubs that have budgets of just $300-500 for the whole year.

After Engel and Sominski had spent some 50 hours meeting with YU officials to work out the project’s details, and agreed to bar students from referring to issues around sexuality in their portraits in order to comport with YU’s culture, the university backed out.

Haaretz made several requests to speak with YU administrators on the issue. University staff declined, responding only with an emailed statement by YU’s dean of students, Chaim Nissel: “As a university based on Torah ideals, Yeshiva University supports and encourages the artistic exploration of diverse ideas by its students and offers robust programming in dramatics and the arts − all while keeping in line with our values. After close review and much discussion of this event with the student organizers, and taking the sensitivities of all of our students into consideration, we determined that a YU venue would not be able to showcase the project in its entirety.”

YU has in recent months been confronted with a $380 million lawsuit brought by 34 former students who say they were sexually abused by faculty at a university-affiliated high school.

“YU administrators told us ’we don’t know how to censor it,’” Engel told Haaretz. “I am sensitive to Yeshiva’s ideology. But many deans and the head of the counseling center sat around and said ‘there’s no way to judge objectively what the parameters should be, so we’re not doing it.’ YU cares so much about protecting its public image, but while doing so undermines it.”

Engel and Sominski moved ahead anyway. They expanded the project to include both YU students and Jews in Crown Heights, Brooklyn. Rosenfield agreed to waive his fee entirely and is crashing in students’ apartments rather than at a hotel. Engel, Sominski and a few other people are covering the cost of his airfare. Each of the 78 participants is paying $10 to defray the cost of printing the photos. The resulting portraits are going up on Facebook as they are taken, and will be displayed at a Crown Heights art gallery from February 22.

“What I Be” photographs depict clothed men and women, from their shoulders up, with what the subjects feel is their deepest pain, their greatest vulnerability. But first Rosenfield spends 30 minutes or more interviewing them to help identify what that might be.

In her portrait Sominski has “I was NOT sleeping” on her forehead. Accompanying it will be her personal statement: “I am not my molestation.” Sominski, 20, had not shared with anyone except sisters and an ex-girlfriend that she was repeatedly molested as a young girl in St. Petersburg, Russia. “In that 30-minute interview Steve uncovered something that I hadn’t even talked about in two years of therapy,” she told Haaretz.

Ben Faulding, 30, a member of Crown Heights’ Chabad community, has a black father and a white Jewish mother. In his portrait, “shvartze” is written on his forehead. He became religious as an adult after growing up on Long Island, where he attended public schools and his biracial identity wasn’t much of an issue. It became more of one when he moved to Crown Heights, he told Haaretz.

“You hear on a daily basis ‘shvartze this’ and ‘shvartze that,’” he said. “It’s just part of conversation among many Jews there.” And though rarely addressed to him, “it’s unpleasant,” said Faulding, who works at a day treatment center for developmentally disabled adults.

Esther Freeman, 29, a mother of four young children and singer-songwriter who performs for women in the religious community, has written on her cheek and forehead, just below her sheitel (wig), “You Just Want Attention.” “It’s something I heard over and over as a child,” she said. “My family would tell me ‘oh you’re such a drama queen.’ I grew up thinking maybe I don’t trust my emotions because of that.

“I’m very Orthodox, but I feel like we live in such an emotionally closed world. Today, if anything, children need to be emotionally aware. There needs to be a lot more acceptance, especially in frum (observant) circles, and understanding,” Freeman told Haaretz as she prepared to perform for 3,000 female Chabad emissaries at their annual conference’s banquet.

Rosenfield, who is 38 and lives in Sacramento, has dreadlocks and looks much like Israeli singer Idan Raichel did a few years back. Rosenfield hasn’t been Jewishly involved since his bar mitzvah, and told Haaretz he considers himself spiritual rather than religious.

He has never experienced anything like he did with YU. “It was frustrating,” he said. Sending his contract back and forth with YU administrators, “I adjusted it for the school to get them to agree, I met all their needs, and it still got turned down.”

But he is glad that the project “What I Be: Jews of NYC” has moved ahead anyway. “It’s been really fun to experience the different culture [of religious Jews]. The rules, their lifestyle, are different for a lot of them. But for the most part their insecurities have pretty much been the same as everybody else’s. It doesn’t matter what religion or race we are, or where we live. We’re all experiencing the same stuff.”

In the end, Engel said, after a long day of shooting YU students, it was a good thing that the project is independent of YU. “It’s impossible to censor people’s insecurities and I don’t think YU would have been able to contain it. It’s better off this way.”

Steve Rosenfield
Steve Rosenfield
Steve Rosenfield