Going Beyond Labels: Mati Esther Engel


Mati Engel knows that young Jews are more than a series of labels. And she proved it when she organized a photography project this year that highlighted the insecurities she and her peers face — and stood them down.

Engel was a student at Stern College when she first encountered photographer Steve Rosenfield’s “What I Be” project, in which subjects pose for pictures with their insecurities written on their skin.

Herself a photographer, Engel (previously a marketing intern at The Jewish Week) found the series fascinating. “This was about finding security from insecurity,” she says. So she reached out to Rosenfield and began to discuss the possibility of doing a new version of his project within the Jewish community.

As co-founder of Yeshiva University’s Students Arts and Culture Club, Engel was eager to bring the project to her university and feature her peers as subjects. At first, YU expressed an interest in facilitating the project, but quickly grew uncomfortable with some of the subject matter, and the conversation hit a wall. (Engel doesn’t fault her alma mater, though). Like the determined artist she is, Engel stuck to her vision and sought patrons: she and her partner for the project, Dasha Sominski, turned to the public for support. With the help of the larger community, the exhibit eventually had an opening gala and run in Crown Heights.

The exhibit, which tackles such issues mental illness and conversion to Judaism, allowed young Jews to transcend their stigmas, with each piece’s title beginning “I Am Not My…”

“We were really putting ourselves out there,” says Engel. “And had no idea how anyone would respond.” After all, she herself was featured as a subject in the series; “I Am Not My Shidduch Resume” questioned her place in the Orthodox matchmaking world. But the feedback about the evening was overwhelmingly positive.

“It just brought people down to earth,” Engel says. “This whole thing was definitely controversial. But it created conversation.”

Aspiring documentarian: Engel has worked as a personal assistant to author/journalist Yossi Klein Halevi. She will also spend the next year in Israel, where she hopes to make a documentary about the nature of faith.

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