Ma’ale students set up a shot – ‘When Ma’ale was set up, there were no Orthodox cameramen, editors, producers, or directors.’Once upon a time, if you were Israeli and you wanted to learn filmmaking, you had no choice but to head for Tel Aviv University’s film and television department. But 18 years ago, the Ma’ale School of Television, Film, and the Arts in Jerusalem broke the Tel Aviv film and media monopoly, paving the way for more than 10 other film schools across the country.

Ma’ale now boasts a plethora of successful graduates working in film and television – directing, writing, and producing everything from award-winning feature films to television dramas. But what is unique about the school is both the curriculum and the students. Ma’ale is the first and only film school for religiously observant Israelis, and has succeeded in pioneering a new kind of creative force in the filmmaking and television world within a community that has historically shunned that medium.

“When Ma’ale was set up, there were no Orthodox cameramen, editors, producers, or directors,” says the school’s head of special projects, Katie Green.

Sitting in her office in Jerusalem’s Musrara neighborhood, Ma’ale’s director Neta Ariel outlines the philosophy behind the school.

“We are a kind of boutique film school because we escort every student. We know their stories, we know their background. During their time in the school, they build their identity and it’s not only their inner identity, but also their Jewish identity,” she said.

That has resulted in a unique mix of subject matter, which one wouldn’t necessarily expect to find from religiously observant filmmakers.

“What’s fascinating about this is the way the students are brave enough to tackle subjects, which are taboo in the Orthodox community,” says Green, who points out student films that have focused on the Orthodox wedding night, divorce, and rape.

While there’s an unspoken rule at Ma’ale that no student films contain any nudity or violence, there are not many topics that are too controversial to be tackled in film.

“We are not screening every movie that’s done in Hollywood,” adds Ariel, “We ask our teachers to check and not to bring pornographic things and no hard violence. There has to be more sanctity than in the other film schools. The main idea is to encourage the students to build with Jewish issues.”

That’s exactly why Ramat Gan native Chaim Elboim, 27, chose to study in Ma’ale after completing compulsory army service.

“I always knew that I would come to Ma’ale, since I was little,” he told ISRAEL21c, “I always wanted to learn this media. There was only one school that was a religious school and I always knew I would go there.”

Elboim, now in his final year, turned a personal story about his late, blind father into a short film in his second year. His final project, a short film called Welcome Home Manni is a documentary about how an elderly man’s stroke affects him and his wife. In March, the film won second place at the DocAviv Film Festival in Tel Aviv.

Elboim credits Ma’ale with helping him integrate his love of film with his love of religious values.

“Their goal is to teach religious people to be filmmakers and make movies that come from the religious world. I think they really succeeded in this. I felt that I know today how to take my point of view and make a film of it,” Elboim said.

Perhaps Ma’ale’s most successful Ma’ale graduate to date, Ohad Domb is currently working as a production manager on his third feature film in the Israeli film industry. Prior to that, he was an assistant producer to two other films.

Domb broke into the notoriously small and difficult industry when a Ma’ale teacher told a class he would take its best student to work with him on his first film.

Domb certainly gained the production experience at Ma’ale, producing five films during his tenure at the school. His most recognized, The Ranch, featured known Israeli actors Amos Lavie (who appeared in Steven Spielberg’s film Munich) and Oshri Cohen, and told the story of a father and son living in a settlement, and captured the feeling of a modern-day Israeli western.

“When you go into Ma’ale, you already know what kind of films you want to do,” said Domb, “It was small and very professional, but there was a very interesting dynamic. It’s about showing you’re a serious director and being supported by your film school. I got what I paid for. They helped me a lot.”

Tehilla Weisenberg, a married immigrant from Toronto and the first student to direct a film in English at Ma’ale, knows the school was a worthwhile challenge.

“They have a goal that they’re trying to reach in terms of taking film to another level,” Weisenberg said, “In any experience, you have your own goal and your institution is there to help you achieve your goals. It’s been a very positive experience.”

Unlike other film schools which mainly have classes during the week, giving students only the weekend to work on their film projects, Ma’ale has designated Wednesday as production day for student films, since they observe Shabbat.

Both director Ariel and graduate Domb use the word ‘family’ when describing the atmosphere at the school.

“The Orthodox culture is like a family, a community where everyone donates his time and talent, and everyone wants to help each other, and the atmosphere of the school is like a family,” said Ariel.

And despite his successful career, Domb still returns to the school to help students with their graduate films.

According to student Elboim, that philosophy shows up in the work. “I realized in Ma’ale that filmmaking is a very difficult and demanding type of work. Ma’ale gave me a very cozy place to deal with the difficulties. You need as much support as you can get,” he said.

While the religious-secular ratio among the students is 90-10, Green notes a tremendous amount of dialogue between the two contrasting elements of society at the school.

“Ma’ale is very unusual in terms of the interface between the secular community and the Orthodox. A large portion of the academic staff that actually runs Ma’ale is Orthodox, but there are also a group of [teachers, staff] that is secular.”

Add Ariel: “Here, there is no quarreling, fighting, competition, or ego. Everyone wants to help so that the director will flourish, and the end product will be the best movie it can be.”