It is fairly well known that President Reuven Rivlin and his wife, Nechama, are film buffs. Thus, when they were asked to host a group of actors, producers, directors, screenwriters, teachers and students who all had strong connections with Jerusalem’s Ma’aleh School of Film, they were more than happy to oblige.

The meeting took place at the President’s Residence, just hours before the opening of the annual DocAviv festival in Tel Aviv in which Ma’aleh is participating.

Rivlin confessed that when he was a schoolboy, he sometimes played hooky and went to the movies, and as an adult, he continued to go to the movies. But until nearly three decades ago, he said, it was extremely rare to see a film dealing with religious Jewish issues.

Most films that touched on religious themes prior to the establishment of Ma’aleh in 1989 were basically parodies.

Even before Ma’aleh came into being, Rivlin recalled, the late Uri Orbach, a wellknown journalist from the National Religious camp, had written an article in the magazine Nekuda under the heading “The good ones to communications,” which was a take on the slogan “The good ones to the air force.”

There is nothing unusual today in seeing religious Zionists in media and in film production, Rivlin remarked, but not so long ago, one hardly ever saw a news reader with a kippa on the television screen.

He credited Ma’aleh, which was launched by Uri Elitzur, Moti Sklaar, Naftali Gliksberg and Yitzhak Recanati, with gradually changing general perceptions and making traditional Judaism more widely known not only to the Israeli public but to Jews worldwide.

Feature films, documentaries and docudramas by Ma’aleh students and graduates have been included in film festivals around the world, said Ma’aleh director-general Neta Ariel.

Without specifically saying so, she also presented Ma’aleh as the realization of Rivlin’s dream of uniting what he calls “the four disparate tribes” of secular Jews, haredi Jews, Arabs and National Religious Jews. All are to be found among the students and graduates of Ma’aleh, studying together and cooperating on productions.

She sees Ma’aleh as a creative bridge between different sectors of society, but most of all as a vehicle for presenting seldom discussed religious issues such as homosexuals in yeshivot or the status of women in the Rabbinical Courts.

In the conversation that followed between Rivlin and some of those present, Arab-Israeli actor Hilal Kaboub, who was born and raised in Jaffa and who is best known for his performances in Ajami, Homeland and Fauda, said that in essence he plays himself, and he is grateful to Ma’aleh for allowing him to tell his story. Although he has had good relationships with Jewish members of the productions in which he has appeared, he still believes that Israeli Arabs are second-class citizens. He voiced the hope that one day they would be equal citizens and that, together with Jewish Israelis, they would come to know peace. Rivlin assured him that he isn’t second class, and that as president, Rivlin is president of all citizens of Israel in equal measure.

Amichai Greenberg, the son of a Holocaust survivor, spoke of his first feature film The Testament, which concerns the search for a mass grave of Jews murdered in Austria during the Holocaust.

He said that at times he had difficulty distinguishing between his personal emotions as a Jew and his professional mission to make a good and intriguing film.

It has been shown in many parts of the world, and reactions differ, he said. The one that moved him most was by a girl in Zurich.

Her grandfather had been a Nazi, and she told Greenberg that she could not shake off the guilt. He responded that she was not the one who was guilty.

Screenwriter Rachel Elitzur and film director Anat Zuria, who each have an insider’s perspective of the haredi world, spoke of the tribulations of haredi women that are depicted in their films.

Eliran Malka, the creator, director and screenwriter of Shababnikim, the most recent window on the haredi world, said that he had met such characters in real life, and was keener to understand them than to judge them. They are yeshiva boys who live between two worlds, and people who are not part of that dilemma do not understand their conflict, he said.

Regardless of the theme of a documentary or feature film, there was consensus that a film is one of the most powerful means of telling a story.

Rivlin regrets that whereas in bygone days people read the book before they went to see the movie on which it was based, today they no longer bother with the book.