The Hasidic Community Portrait Project by photographer Justin Bettman

Photographer: Justin Bettman

Having grown up in a reform Jewish household in Northern California, my initial perception of the Hasidic community when I moved to NYC was that it almost looked and felt like a completely separate religion. But I wondered: how are we similar? In this portrait series, I wanted to bridge the gap between the reform Jewish community I grew up in and the Hasidic Jewish community that I lived adjacent to in NY.

There’s a difference between watching people and really seeing them. To that point, many photographs of the Hasidic community in New York have a voyeuristic and documentary quality to them since there is a lack of permission and trust by many of the individuals in the Hasidic community. I did not want to replicate that. Rather, I wanted to elevate them and treat them the same way I would treat any individual or celebrity coming into my studio. I wanted consent and permission.

For many reasons, sitting for a portrait within the Hasidic community is seen as taboo. There is not a rule written in the Torah that expressly prohibits doing so. However, one of the main unwritten rules within the Hasidic community is to do what everyone else does and avoid what everyone else avoids. Without a doubt, the toughest part of this project was gaining the access and permission to find willing subjects to sit for a portrait.

My main goal was to make each person feel comfortable enough to reveal their unique characteristics and personality. Oftentimes, the outside world only notices the surface level trademarks that are reflected in the Hasidic community — their intricate hats, their beards, and their payot. I strived to go beyond that.

I used these photo sessions as an opportunity to learn more about the Hasidic community and share my experiences as a reform jew. Through this sense of shared humanity, I was able to capture something timeless, personal and honest.

Many people have asked why I didn’t include women in the project. I had a few Hasidic women who were willing to sit for portraits, however they didn’t feel comfortable having their images shared publicly.