Thursday, December 29, 2011

Kol Hakavod, Uri Westrich

Uri Westrich
Growing up in the Jewish (and Orthodox) community, few professions articulated Jewish success more than medicine. The jokes about mother-in-laws and their son-in-law doctors were never really that funny to me, but the stereotype endured. If you're Jewish, and you're a doctor, you're successful.
Today, when you couple an ongoing economic downturn with the financial comfort that is all but assured for most doctors (yes, even the GPs) in the United States (until, of course, the system implodes), the pressure to enter one of the classically "Jewish" professions is significant. Doctor is fine, as well as lawyer, accountant, computer programmer - all great. But if you want to "break the mold" and follow your passion, you end up facing a bunch of frowning adults who accost you with questions like, "But how are you going to support yourself doing that?" I often wonder how many Jewish kids grew up dreaming of a career in tax law, spending countless thousands of hours staring at complicated documents? And yet, they choose just that career - or something like it - after their dreams are beaten down by the steady drumbeat of future financial obligation.
Interestingly, in Israel this phenomenon is far less pronounced, for the obvious reason that salaries are far lower than in the United States. People don't become doctors here for financial reasons, because medicine, while a fine profession, doesn't really pay that much more than other professions. Neither does law, or accounting. (You can do pretty well in high tech, but you'll work much harder than your doctor and lawyer friends too.) So people are less afraid to enter an unglamorous profession, start a business, or just take time off to study a field of interest. A neighbor (who's a successful company man) told me that he's studying for a teaching degree in Civics one day a week because it interests him. You almost never see that in America, but it's quite common here in Israel.
So, it's somewhat refreshing when someone has the courage to follow his dreams, and do not what's expected, but what he loves, hoping to turn his passion into a career.
We're all familiar by now with the wonderful Maccabeats videos that garner thousands of hits on YouTube. The videos have brought YU great, well-deserved PR, and propelled the singers themselves to Ortho-stardom. But the true star of the videos has been lingering in the credits: videographer/producer Uri Westrich.
What's great about the videos isn't just the singing - there are a lot of great acapella groups. Rather, Uri somehow figured out a way to tell a story through his videos. The Chanukah vidoes simultaneously (1) tell the story of Chanukah (2) Convey a sense of humor both about the guys and about Orthodoxy (3) Relate important messages about traditional Judaism and (4) Most importantly, convey an emotional warmth about the holiday itself. After watching the first Candlelight video, I wanted to light my Chanukah candles then and there! And I thought I was just watching a music video. While the singers are great, the popularity and success of the videos can be traced directly to Westrich.
So, I read this week with some sense of satisfaction that Westrich has recently decided to abandon medical school to pursue his video career. According to the New York Jewish Week,
He’s sacrificing medical school and wrestling with fears that his religious commitments might make it hard to succeed in the world of film and video.
“My parents were not exactly thrilled,” said Westrich, who graduated YU in 2009.
Uri, I don't know what your parents think now, but I think it's great and wish you the best. Film and video is the medium of communication in our time. We need many more talented young people like you, who can combine their Torah dedication with the talents and skills necessary to communicate properly through the medium of video. (Israel now has one full-time Orthodox film school, and many high schools have film and video departments. Orot has an entire department devoted to training the teachers to staff these schools. Maybe its time for YU to get into this game as well, and at least offer a series of courses for aspiring Orthodox filmmakers too. Sorry, Rabbi Brander - I know you're busy, but it's a good idea!)
So Uri, while you didn't ask for my blessings, you've got them. B'hatzlachah as you follow your dreams. I pray that Hashem bless you with success, and that you're able to continue to merge your passion for Torah and tradition with the video talents God has blessed you with. It won't be easy, I'm sure, and without a doubt your principles will be challenged (think tzniyut, values, etc. to say nothing of Shabbat and Yom Tov).
But, if you keep making great videos and producing more examples of Kiddush Hashem, it will well be worth it. And hopefully, other aspiring young people will look at your success and wonder, "If Uri could do it, maybe I can too."