A couple weeks ago, the American Jewish Press Association (AJPA), the professional group for Jewish journalists, held its annual conference in Philadelphia. One of the activities designed to give attendees a diversion from the sessions was a trip to that city’s National Museum of American Jewish History.
What a fitting choice. When, in 2010, this premier museum of the American Jewish community moved to its present $150 million building on Independence Mall, a reviewer in the Forward had this to say:
A serious consideration of religion is also lacking. Only the slightest reference is made to Hasidism, for example, despite the fact that it constitutes arguably one of the most potent religious forces in American Jewish life today. It’s not that the history of faith or of the changing forms of practice is completely ignored. The origins of the various denominations are laid out — particularly … the first rabbinical ordination of the Reform movement … where frogs legs and shrimp were served.… But there is no real exploration of how American Jews have, in large part, moved away from religious practice or of what this says about the community.
So the museum was an altogether appropriate destination for an excursion of Jewish journalists whose publications, for the most part, lack any “serious consideration of religion” and make “only the slightest reference” to the virtues and vibrancy of chassidism and other sectors of Orthodoxy, which constitute — no, not “arguably,” but indisputably — some of “the most potent religious forces in American Jewish life today.” This way, columnists and reporters for whom a large swath of the American Jewish community is simply invisible — except, that is, when there’s a scandal to be covered or some exotic practice or subversive person to highlighted — could walk from exhibit to exhibit without any challenge to their ignorance or biases. How comfortable.
Upon their return to the convention hotel, their preconceived notions blessedly intact, these journalists reconvened for an awards ceremony recognizing the best work of their colleagues in the past year. In the category of Best News Reporting among large-circulation newspapers, there was one first-place and one second-place award. Both were won by Hella Winston of the New York Jewish Week, for two articles she wrote in 2011, both focusing on the misdeeds of Orthodox Jews.
Her first-place winner was an article about that den of iniquity called Lakewood, New Jersey. I haven’t read that story, but I’ll be sure to do so now that the AJPA has offered its “[k]udos to the writer and her publication for bravery, and for handling the story in such a professional manner.” Bravery, eh?
Her second-place award was for an article that I did read, but I’ll let Marvin Schick, an astute long-time observer of the secular Jewish media, describe it:
As the Kletzky family began the shivah period and Jews everywhere joined in their mourning, and as millions of persons who are not Jewish felt the pain, there was one notable exception to the universal grief over the murder of young Leiby. That exception was the Jewish Week of New York, a community newspaper that over the years has specialized in targeting Orthodox Jews, depicting us as engulfed in wrongdoing….
I write a column that is published in the Jewish Week … paid for … by persons who believe that my views should have a forum … In the first column years ago, I explained that my aim was to counteract the flow of negative writing about the Orthodox. Not that I believe that wrongdoing by religious Jews should be defended or covered up; to the contrary, it is obligatory that we do not justify or excuse such wrongdoing…. But it is also wrong to indulge in group libel, to take a community that is enveloped in so much chesed, Torah study, and much else that is truly good and to take the wrongs that some do as representative of this community.
As I reflect on what the Jewish Week publishes on a regular basis, I know that I have failed. Orthodoxy-bashing is alive and well at this newspaper and this was abundantly on display recently in two long articles … written by Hella Winston, whose animus towards the Orthodox knows no bounds.
The expectation was that coverage of Leiby Kletzy’s murder would be different, that like every other newspaper of whatever orientation in the New York area, as well as broadcast media, the Jewish Week would cover the tragedy with sensitivity and with empathy toward a community in pain….
It was not to be. The assignment for the main story at the top of page one in the current issue went to Winston, whose stock and trade includes anonymous sources, innuendo, surmises, and believing the worst about the Orthodox. She flourishes in a netherworld of journalism. The fact that she was given the assignment is telling, because it meant that she was given a green light to utilize the tragedy to target the Orthodox. This is striking in its inappropriateness.
Dr. Schick goes on to quote one particular paragraph in her story that “goes beyond the bounds of ordinary odiousness. I cannot fathom how the Jewish Week allowed it to be published.” He concludes: “This is sick and despicable. If there is any decency left at the Jewish Week, it would apologize.”
I’m all for dialogue about the topic of anti-Orthodox bias in the media, the extent to which it actually exists, what can be done about it, etc. But when the professional association of American Jewish journalists votes to award a prize to this writer for this article, is there anything, anything at all, left to say?
STILL THE TALK OF THE TOWN
The Citi Field asifah is the gift that keeps on giving. It has placed the issue of how to respond to technology’s onslaught front and center on the agenda of every Orthodox Jew across the religious spectrum.
Modern Orthodox rabbis are issuing guidance to their congregations in response to the many inquiries they’ve been receiving post- asifah. Websites that opposed the asifah are featuring discussions of effective filters and safe computer use. Whatever one’s view of the asifah, its aftermath, and the topic as a whole, it is the talk of the Orthodox town. And all this would never have come to pass had the strategy been, as some had counseled, to simply hold numerous community gatherings on the topic, instead of one huge, audacious, impossible-to-ignore asifah.
And it’s not just in the Orthodox world that the asifah continues to inspire and draw attention to this issue. Two weeks ago, Ron Offringa, a writer on a technology website, posted a piece entitled “A Little Less Online,” followed by many positive comments and thoughtful exchanges with those who were more skeptical. Some excerpts:
In late May Paul Miller of The Verge detailed his visit to a rally put on by various groups of Orthodox Jews about the dangers of the Internet. The article itself is a good read, but the video of the event is incredible. In the video Paul talks with a number of Orthodox Jews about their views on the Internet, but one man in particular, Eytan Kobre, an editor for Mishpacha Jewish Family Weekly, had some particularly fascinating things to say about how the Internet should be viewed.
Ever since Paul decided to leave the Internet I’ve been questioning its own effects on me as a human. How has the Internet changed me?
What we’re looking to do here, really, is, you know, making a cost-benefit analysis. Saying, are social networking sites, are they undermining my sense of human dignity, of privacy? Are they pandering to my worst instincts when I get on the comments section of a blog, of a website? Are they turning me into something I don’t realize? – Eytan Kobre
While we haven’t seen the full repercussions for our always-online lifestyle, everyone is beginning to see changes in the way we interact with each other.… This shift towards expecting information to be available instantly may not be a good thing for us. It’s one thing to expect instant results in a Google search, but having those expectations can also influence our expectations in our relationships. We may only choose to interact with friends and family through social media because of the convenience and lose the nuance and genuine connection that a face-to-face conversation offers. Our demand for quick information can make us value facts instead of interactions.…
I think we should ask ourselves about the cost-benefit ratio of an always-on lifestyle. Is always being tuned into the Internet making me a better person? Is it good for me as a human, or is it changing me into something I don’t want to be. Is your phone an idol that you placate every time the screen flashes or is it a tool to help keep you connected? … Are we missing out on more of the life around us because we’re so focused on the digital life that is fighting for our attention?
We have to make decisions about how things affect us. I’m finding myself choosing to disengage with the Internet subconsciously because I would rather interact with the humans around me than read through a Twitter stream. The Internet can be an amazing tool, but it can also be a source of depravity.…
Every day we’re faced with little decisions about whether or not to interact with the humans around us or get sucked back into our phones. Every day we can choose to be better or worse versions of ourselves. I think we could all stand to be a little bit less online and a little more engaged with those around us.