Photography project empowers, gives voice to students at Tel Aviv special needs high school

Principal of Ironi Neve Tzedek says the program, which started eight years ago with support from the Waldman family, gives students a feeling of success and brings out hidden talents

Hands raised to the sky, a holy book, a man wrapped in a tallit and tefillin, a statue of Jesus on the cross bathed in the yellow light of stained-glass windows, a person playing a drum.

These are some of the photographic interpretations of the concept of prayer — put on display at the Neve Schechter – Center for Contemporary Jewish Culture and Arts on Tuesday — by the students of Tel Aviv’s Ironi Neve Tzedek, a high school for students with learning disabilities.

For eight years, the high school has been encouraging students to explore photography. In recent years, this has expanded to other forms of visual art as well, including painting, graffiti, video art and animation, all of which were also displayed at Neve Schechter, a compound on the edge of Tel Aviv’s tony Neve Tzedek neighborhood that contains a Masorti/Conservative synagogue, a gallery space and a cafe. 

The photography program was made possible with financial support from Adir and Tamara Waldman, who immigrated to Neve Tzedek from the United States and developed ties to the school as part of an effort to connect and strengthen the local community. (Though it is still called Ironi Neve Tzedek, this year the school relocated to a new location in the Bitsaron neighborhood of eastern Tel Aviv.)

“Our students have learning disabilities, which makes it hard for them to express themselves verbally,” the school’s principal, Tirza Judelewicz, told eJewishPhilanthropy at the exhibit opening. “So we looked for tools that would allow them to express themselves. The camera is particularly available, especially today when everyone has a smartphone.”

Judelewicz said the Waldmans purchased the cameras for the school and continue to support the photography program, including by professionally printing the students’ photographs and having them put on display at Neve Schechter. Two of the Waldmans’ children have also done bar and bat mitzvah projects with the school, they noted.

Ordinarily, the photography exhibit is shown for several weeks; this year, due to logistical issues, it was only displayed for one day before having to be taken down, but a digital version of the exhibit will be put online shortly. 

“The kids see their photographs printed professionally, and then they can take them home and show their families. It’s really cool,” Adir Waldman told eJP on the sidelines of the exhibit opening.

The Waldmans’ support allowed the school to create an arts track for the student, which then developed into a more practical communications track, after the school determined that the more theoretical arts curriculum did not work as well with the students, Judelewicz said. 

Getting misty-eyed at times, Judelewicz said the photography and arts classes gave the students a much-needed boost. She noted many of them come from Tel Aviv’s lower socioeconomic neighborhoods and communities, including children of foreign workers and asylum seekers. (The photographs on display also reflected that multicultural milieu, with many of the images featuring Christian and Muslim iconography.)

“It empowers them. We’ve found students who are very, very, very talented,” she said. “They experience success, and that is the most important thing for us. Because they face so much frustration and so much non-success and rejection. And this gives them a platform and a feeling of being capable.”

Tamara Waldman, who said she was partially drawn to the school because her own brother has a learning disability, also noted this point, saying photography is an area where the students are on equal footing with their peers. “It’s very empowering for them,” she said. 

Indeed, this year for the first time, Ironi Neve Tzedek partnered with another high school, Tel Aviv’s storied Gymnasia Herzliya, whose arts-track students also had photographs displayed. The only difference between the schools’ submissions is that  Ironi Neve Tzedek’s photos generally clung to a more literal expression of the concept of prayer, while the Gymnasia Herzliya students opted for more abstract offerings (a slash of sky between two black buildings; two empty yellow chairs [the symbol of the hostages in Gaza] on an empty stretch of beach.)

A mother of one of the students involved who spoke at the event, but asked not to be named, agreed with Waldman and Judelewicz about the power of the photography project for her son.

“The photography project empowers him so much,” she said. “He waits for the day to start just so he can do photography. It does so much, so much. He’s always with a camera now.”