A Letter, and A Response

Ms. Eisner,

You may remember that in February, I communicated with you about a particular post to the Sisterhood blog that I found inaccurate and unfair. Please be aware that I did not hear back from Ms. Birkner, but in any case, I think that there is a more endemic problem.

According to Ami Magazine, you claimed on behalf of the Forward that “we are not hostile. We are fair in our reporting and appropriately critical in our editorials.” You further claim in this week’s Podcast that your editorial about the Chassidic poor that you attempted to be “compassionate.” [My bad editing; obviously the intent was “regarding your editorial…” –YM]

I am sorry to say that I found no evidence of compassion (or even accurate comprehension) in your editorial.

You apparently did not discuss the issue with any of the many community representatives or assistance organizations, merely racking up Chassidic poverty to a lack of secular education and devotion to Torah and Talmud. In so doing, you omitted a simple analysis of the income necessary to support a large family, and how that compares to what a typical wage-earner brings home. Whereas the US median salary may be adequate for a family with 1.2 children (and a pet or two), a family of 5.8 children finds itself below the poverty line at the same income level. And with that many children, it is unrealistic to expect both parents to work full-time.

Why should those children be considered “undeserving” by any standard? And that is before considering the cost of a Jewish education, which is mandatory for any family that values Jewish continuity (and does not wallow in self-delusion about the mechanisms of same).

Your editorial was only one of four articles discussing the Orthodox which I found in a single three-day period, and all of them appeared, at least to me, to be biased against our community — and in at least two instances distorted the truth. I posted the following on Thursday: http://www.cross-currents.com/archives/2012/06/21/even-for-the-forward/.

Since then, the Forward has sent me:

  • An article about Lipa’s bizarre video. Indeed, it is bizarre; no argument there. [Actually, there was a second article, too. –YM]
  • The second article in two weeks about the same organization for ex-Charedim, this one depicting a soccer game as fulfilling a dream for those leaving the “ultra-Orthodox” community. [I recall the dean of a yeshiva, from an outstanding Chassidic line, dropping in a layup. It wasn’t hard for him, as he’s quite tall.]
  • The claim that Yossi Gestetner’s resignation as NYGOP’s outreach liason to the Orthodox community indicates a “rocky start” to the entirety of GOP Orthodox Outreach — when the appointment itself wasn’t apparently even worthy of mention.
  • Another Sisterhood blog entry, this one about how halacha requires unusual practices in the bedroom to help with fertility issues. The fact that the Sisterhood chose to dwell on such an obscure topic might be perplexing, but the previous five Sisterhood posts tagged “Orthodox” concerned sex, (homo)sex(uality), gitten/Jewish divorce, sex, and, uh, sex. They do seem a wee bit preoccupied, don’t you think?

The Orthodox (and traditional Judaism itself) are depicted as both odd and antiquated, with the most positive coverage given to those who have left the community and organizations which have parted company with Orthodox spokespersons. It seems difficult to imagine the reader of all of these articles concurring with your description of the reporting as “fair,” or even saying that it lacks hostility to our community. Indeed, in yet another article, your veteran columnist JJ Goldberg characterized the projected scenario in which NY Jewry becomes predominantly Orthodox/Chassidic as, in effect, “apocalyptic.”

The Union for Reform Judaism received commendably objective coverage as it installed a new leader (enamored of J Street, which is arguably more anti-Zionist than Yossi Gestetner will ever be) complete with dance troupe and Gospel choir. The recent article about the gender gap in Reform rabbinic salaries featured extensive quotations from the CCAR’s chief executive, discussing what was being done to address the issue internally.

Yet it seems that the Orthodox receive a disproportionate share of the Forward’s attention, always with “experts” from outside the community discussing its problems. The attention wouldn’t necessarily be a bad thing: as the recent UJA Survey demonstrated, the Orthodox are a unique source of unequivocally good news for the Jewish community. The Forward, however, omitted any mention of what Orthodox growth means for the “continuity crisis” that has so panicked the Jewish community for the past two decades. Instead, the Forward chose to cast more affiliated Jewish generations as a problem rather than a joy.

The above articles give me the opportunity for one or more follow-up pieces; I plan, in fact, to post this letter. Before doing so, however, I wanted to give you the opportunity to correct the record if there are any more positive mentions that I may have missed, or if, in your opinion, I have unfairly characterized any of the above, or if there is more positive coverage on the way of which our community ought to be aware.

One way or the other, I hope you will consider once again the need for balance and sensitivity when discussing a subset of the Jewish community with which you may personally be less familiar. I know that there are many who are ready and able to give you background information and perspective from within, as well as quotations when we know that they will be depicted fairly and in context. I hope that the Forward will avail itself of the opportunity in the future.

Yours Sincerely,

Yaakov Menken

Ms. Eisner’s response is reprinted here with permission, unedited:

Dear Rabbi Yenkin,

Thank you for your letter. I appreciate the fact that you sought my response to some of the unfair and scurrilous attacks on my editorial and The Forward. I’ll try to respond briefly to your points.

First, I did interview a number of people in preparing that editorial, including those in the Orthodox community and those who have studied it seriously. The issues I raised spoke to real concerns among leaders and ordinary Jews alike. My criticism wasn’t aimed at the poor; it was aimed at those who do not wish to support the poor. Why is a poor family of Hasidic Jews more deserving of public subsidy than a poor family of Hispanic immigrants? Yet the very conservative commentators who criticized my editorial have consistently lobbied against welfare payments for the poor and working class. And if it’s the Jewish community which is responsible for helping the Jewish poor, where will that funding come from? What programs will cease in order to pay for such support? I happen to believe that federations and other Jewish communal institutions should have as their primary function taking care of the poor and needy among us. But that means funding for other programs — supporting Israel, for instance — may have to be cut or eliminated. Are we as a community willing to have that conversation?

Second, you point out that there seemed to be a number of stories in The Forward recently that were critical of the Orthodox community. I can understand how you could get that impression. The truth is that a news organization, even one as small as this, is a decentralized, organic one. So just because something appears on a particular blog doesn’t mean that the editor in charge of the news for the front page is consulted. I try very hard to pay attention to the mix and balance of stories in the print edition, but cannot possibly do the same with our content online, which is handled by individual editors with their own mandates and audiences.

That said, I would like to point out that the story about Yossi Gestetner’s resignation originated not with us, but with the Jewish Channel. Your complaint may be with them.

On the broader point, it is not my intention to focus on the Orthodox any more than any other denomination or group with the overall Jewish community. You may not have been as sensitive to it, but there have been times in the last year or two when it seemed to some that we were “going after” the Conservative movement and the Reform movement with stories that were highly critical of their leadership and activities. We published those stories because they were, to the best of our ability, true and important. We don’t “go after” anyone. As the only truly independent national Jewish news organization, we hold up a mirror to our community so that it can see itself more clearly and address essential and sometimes controversial issues.

I do believe that there is a growing gap between Orthodox and non-Orthodox Jews — that we do not interact with each other and therefore don’t understand each other nearly as much as we should. The fault lies on both sides of the chasm. I pledge to do my part to try to bridge that gap. While preparing my editorial last week, I instructed the opinion editor to seek out someone in the Orthodox community to write for us immediately, and there should be a column in this week’s edition from a reputable and important voice. This is an ongoing process.

I welcome your ideas about trends and issues in the Orthodox world that we should write about for The Forward. And thank you again for reaching out.

Jane Eisner

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