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YU Censorship Backfires as Project Gains International Reputation

By: Ben Kohane


Californian photographer Steve Rosenfield began the “What I Be” social experiment in 2010 with just one volunteer. According to his website, he decided to “photograph [his] friend with her insecurity written somewhere on her face or hands.” Four years and hundreds of portraits later, Rosenfield’s online galleries have been filled with bold declarations of deep insecurities complemented by fearless, powerful stares. After successful programs at Columbia University, Princeton University, and other colleges around the country, several students from YU’s art clubs contacted administrators with the proposal to host a “What I Be” exhibition here on campus, hoping to catalyze conversation and reflection on serious issues.

Stern senior Mati Engel, co-president of the YU Arts Club, was instrumental in arranging the original plans. Engel first discovered Rosenfield’s project while visiting a friend at Princeton. After realizing his name sounded Jewish – Rosenfield is Jewish but does not practice and sees the project as focusing on “human values rather than Jewish values directly” – she “pitched the idea of shooting the “What I Be” project at YU. Co-president Dasha Sominski and I organized the whole campaign: we coordinated with the photographer, got eleven student clubs to co-sponsor, got 100 student signatures to be a part of the project, and met with Student Life countless times.”

The project really picked up steam as other students were brought into the fold. Avigayil Bachrach (SCW ’15) was approached by Engel and the other Art Club co-president, senior Dasha Sominski, and added to the “group Facebook message for all the people brought on board,” which constantly updated its members on the status of the fundraising effort, as multiple clubs and student councils pledged money to the campaign. Another student, junior Aaron Portman, also got involved after hearing about the undertaking and its need for a Wilf uptown campus representative. “The plan was to bring Steven [Rosenfield] here to specifically take pictures of YU students, both male and female,” explains Portman. “We wanted to display the portraits somewhere, to help express our students’ diversity and insecurities, to create a sense of community.”

Though the objectives of the project were clear, arranging the logistical details proved to be a more challenging feat for the students. According to the Haaretz website, one of 12 media publications which have reported on the project and YU’s ultimate response over the past few weeks, scheduling constraints and financial commitments all played into delaying the project. According to University Dean of Students Chaim Nissel, the university “never determined where the pictures would be posted or where on campus the shoot would take place…because the event never received final approval.” Dean Nissel further explained that many of the delays were driven by balancing university supervision with self-expression. Though, “the organizers suggested that the program have oversight and that we would not permit certain themes, challenges arose when determining how we could host a program of “self-expression” if we were going to put any limits on that self-expression.”

After reconsidering the values and the direction that the project would highlight, YU ultimately decided to withdraw support from the program. “As soon as we realized that there were too many variables and we could not allow it to move forward, we met directly with the student organizers and told them,” Dean Nissel explained. Engel, Sominski, and the other students were encouraged to continue the project independent of YU. Though discouraged by the “unnecessary bureaucratic affairs that wasted our time,” as Sominski put it in a recent Jerusalem Post interview, the students and Rosenfield simply altered the original plans, deciding to retitle the effort as “What I Be: Jews of NYC & Honorary Guests” and expanding the project to include both YU students and Jews from Crown Heights, a neighborhood in Brooklyn. Bachrach, “still wanting to be a part of the project, reached out to help with whatever she could,” whether it was “running one of the photography sessions” or actually getting photographed herself.

“Being photographed was awesome,” Bachrach adds. The project “just became about being Jewish and allowing myself to be photographed about a vulnerability of mine…and the process behind it [speaking with Rosenfield before the shoot] made the experience great.”

Rosenfield said he was “pretty frustrated when the project was pulled from Yeshiva. I felt that it was a way to really show the students that they’re cared about and what they are interested in matters.”

Students echoed Rosenfield’s opinions. Portman was “disappointed when YU withdrew support.” He continued, “This kind of thing, bolstering our diverse Jewish community by revealing insecurities which we are usually told to cover up, initiating an open dialogue on important issues and concerns, isn’t something to shy away from.” Bachrach concurred, noting that the photo shoot could have been an “amazing opportunity for Yeshiva students to unite in an open forum, to admit vulnerabilities and insecurities in a public way. I hope that this project illustration some of the suppression going on in Orthodox communities and is a wake-up call for discussion and change…through the power of working together.”

Engel insists that even with all the media attention, the project did not intend to be controversial or contend with the institutional policies of YU.  “The project was merely an initiative towards social changes within our religious communities, and that should not be taken at the expense of YU.”

Instead of on the YU campus, the completed exhibit, a full gallery of New York Jews’ striking portraits and shared secrets, is planned to debut at the arts space Mister Rogers, located in southern Crown Heights, on February 22nd. All YU students are invited and more information, including ticketing, is available on their public event page on Facebook. All the photos will be on display, paired with personal statements explaining each one. Additionally, Rosenfield plans on “traveling to schools and universities across the country” to continue the ongoing “What I Be” project. He is also in the process of putting together a coffee table book, complete with images and statements.