What a difference a year makes. Last January, Uri Westrich, 26, was a first-year medical student at Mount Sinai, slaving away over Anatomy and Biochemistry and wondering, in the back of his mind, if he was on the right path.
Today, he's a working filmmaker, counting Sony and Bayer as his paying clients. He's filmed violinists Yitzhak Pearlman and Joshua Bell. The musicians who put him on the map, and where he is today, are the Maccabeats, the YU a capella group that exploded last Hanukkah when a video Westrich filmed for them went viral on the internet.
Yet of all the Maccabeats, Westrich is the only one who’s making a go of it in the entertainment industry. He’s sacrificing medical school and wrestling with fears that his religious commitments might make it hard to succeed in the world of film and video.
“My parents were not exactly thrilled,” said Westrich, who graduated YU in 2009.
Westrich posted that video, depicting the Maccabeats' goofy, Hanukkah-themed cover of Taio Cruz’s louche hit Dynamite, on a Friday right before Shabbat about a year ago. By Sunday night, it had received 50,000 hits (ultimately garnering more than six million views). By Tuesday, news outlets across the country were calling the band and Westrich was struggling to balance interview requests with his lab schedule. By the next week, he had decided to take a leave of absence.
“The video was the straw that broke the camel’s back,” said Westrich, who’d been feeling underwhelmed by medical school for a while.
Filmmaking, on the other hand, had been a hobby of his since his yeshiva days in New Jersey.
“I thought about pursuing it professionally, but it didn’t seem like the responsible thing to do,” he said, especially after he snagged a spot in the Humanities in Medicine Program, which gave him admission to medical school as a third-semester undergraduate.
“When I got to YU, I didn’t really know what I wanted to do, so I started on the premed track,” Westrich said. “My father’s a doctor. There’s a lot of doctors in my family. I like science. So it seemed like a reasonable thing to do to start down that road when there wasn’t really anything else that really interested me.”
But when the Maccabeats approached him to do “Candlelight,” he couldn’t resist. He has since directed all five of the group’s videos.
“I guess in psychological terms, it would have been called ‘acting out,’” Westrich said. “I felt stifled in medical school. I was still having doubts … I channeled my energies into this other pursuit.”
Westrich is comfortable with his decision, generating enough income from filmmaking to support himself in an apartment with two roommates in Washington Heights.
He’s met some observant Jews working in his newly chosen field and while he knows that conflicts might arise between his religious and professional obligations on a big production, he is determined for now to forge ahead.
“I’m not going to stop doing this just because there’s a chance that it won’t work out,” he said. “If the issue arises, I’ll either resolve it or I’ll leave.”