February 27, 2018 \ Geoff Birmingham
Case Study: 100 Years of Harvard’s Jewish History

Harvard Hillel recently embarked on a major campaign to raise money for several initiatives related to programming and capital improvements. The campaign included an event to celebrate the 90th birthday of Henry Rososvky, who served Harvard for many years as a professor, dean and even twice as acting president. The event was also used as an opportunity to re-publish a catalogue that accompanied a 1986 exhibit of Harvard’s Jewish history. Professor Rosovsky’s wife, Nitza, curated the 1986 exhibit and wrote the first catalogue.

Harvard Hillel recruited a young researcher, Elena Hoffenberg, to help Nitza update of the original catalogue.  We produced a video that captured their work together. There were three main objectives:


Harvard’s Jewish History

  1. Highlight 100 years of Jewish history at Harvard…in less than five minutes!
  2. Communicate the idea that the Jewish community is an established presence on campus
  3. Show that the more things have changed with Jewish life, the more they have stayed the same

We brainstormed multiple ideas with Rabbi Steinberg about ways to approach this. The key was to avoid a straight recapping the chronological history of Hillel. We discussed interviewing Nitza and Elena separately or perhaps together. We thought about inviting Henry to participate in some fashion, or former Harvard president,  Larry Summers, who is a close friend of the Rosovskys.

All of the ideas felt like they would lead to a video that was rather formal and static, so Reflection Films proposed that Nitza and Elena sit together in a casual setting and talk to each other (instead of being interviewed by a producer) about some of the material they researched together. The idea was that:

  1. A casual setting would make them both more comfortable and make the video feel less formal – kitchen table talk, basically
  2. Talking to each other would feel more familiar and, therefore, easier than answering interview questions
  3. A certain energy would develop between the two as they interacted with each other, which wouldn’t happen with the interview approach
  4. Placing photos in front of them would actually help spark interesting conversation

It worked!  Rabbi Steinberg brought in photos that he thought would help lead the conversation towards the messaging he wanted.  And it was clear that Nitza and Elena have a fondness for one another, which helped give the video a more personal and intimate feel.

Key production takeway

Interviewing people is often the best way to capture the messaging you want to communicate in your video.  It allows the producer to ask pointed questions and, if the answers are not precisely what the client is seeking, to re-ask them with a little guidance.  So conducting interviews gives the client and producer greater control.  In some situations, however, allowing people to interact on camera can be effective.  Two situations, in particular, are when: 1) you want to reduce the formality of an interview format; and 2) if the subjects are a little anxious about being on camera.

And what Reflection Films appreciated about its collaboration with Harvard Hillel

At the conclusion of filming with Nitza, she and Henry invited Geoff and Rafi to linger longer, sharing snacks at their kitchen table and listening to stories of their youth and their immigration to the United States as teenagers.  Aside from being a delightful couple and accomplished storytellers, it was proof that welcoming “outsiders” into our midst enhances life for the rest of us, rather than detracts.