On Media / Pop Culcha

Jewish World Review March 13, 2000/ 6 Adar II, 5760


Jonathan Mark

Unorthodox Coverage

Media comes to praise the Orthodox, and bury them


http://www.jewishworldreview.com -- EVEN AS ISRAEL’S ANTI-ORTHODOX PROPAGANDISTS keep exporting films like “Kadosh,” which depicts Orthodox rituals in a state of spiritual squalor, particularly with regard to women — of course — let it be known that there are newspapers, far from Israel, that treat traditional Judaism with respect bordering on admiration. For example, in California, The Sacramento Bee (Feb. 7) reports on Sacramento Jews joining in a nationwide mikveh revival.

The mikveh, operated by the Knesset Israel Torah Center, reports the Bee, “shelters one of the holiest Jewish sites in the Sacramento region: the mikveh, or ritual bath. For centuries, the mikveh played one ofEconophone the most important roles in Judaism, often built before the synagogue in a nascent religious community as a source of purification. ... The ritual bath is undergoing a revival across the country, among less observant and Orthodox Jews alike. Dozens of new ones have been built or planned in the past decade,” in places such as Las Vegas and Tulsa, Okla.

The Sacramento mikveh “is already used by many across the region,” men and women, “drawing Jewish faithful from as far away as Reno and Lake Tahoe.” A new mikveh is planned.

Rabbi Ben-Zion Bergman, a rabbinic literature professor at the University of Judaism in Los Angeles, tells the Bee that even Conservative Jews are increasingly drawn to mikvehs, and that at least eight Conservative congregations around the country have built a new mikveh, or are planning one.

Knesset Israel, an Orthodox congregation, has an open-door policy allowing use by non-Orthodox rabbis and their converts, although the naive are advised by a notice on the wall that not all Jews recognize non-Orthodox conversions as valid.

Rainwater is commonly used in the mikveh, but given the dry season, mikveh supporters drive to the Sierra Nevada and bring back snow, reports the paper.

Trakdata In a separate story on another day, the Bee (Feb. 3) reports on shul president Steven Haberfeld who was down in Death Valley, on a 127-degree day, in a room without air conditioning, negotiating the give-back of national park lands to the Timbisha Shoshone Indians. Haberfield was there as associate director of the local Indian Dispute Resolution Services.

The Bee reports that Haberfeld “said he has honed his negotiating skills through 30 years of experience mediating for farm workers and Indians, as well as engaging his fellow Jewish congregants, who thrive on debate.”

Well, that’s just Sacramento; it’s the Israeli Orthodox who are terrible, right? Not so fast, says Rabbi Avi Shafran in Moment (February): The Agudah spokesman documents that the last few years have witnessed a veritable crime wave of libels and half-truths about the Israeli Orthodox that nevertheless were given a free pass, certainly in The New York Times and Israeli papers.

A typical example: In 1998, a “Kadosh”-like story appeared in the Israeli newspaper Yediot Achronot about rabbis ordering a man to divorce his wife because she’d been raped. Gee, those Orthodox sure are mean and heartless, aren’t they? Several weeks later, the reporter was fired for making the whole thing up. Shafran presents numerous other examples.

He focuses on the persistent reports of Orthodox misbehavior at the Western Wall; the worst of which he exposes as hoaxes or exaggerations, but dovetailing beautifully, he writes, with fund-raising efforts by liberal denominations and organizations.

As for all the stories of Orthodox Jews supposedly invalidating the Jewishness of liberal Jews, Shafran writes that “the Orthodox alone are faulted for their inability to accept the validity of other groups’ conversion rituals. The Conservative movement’s own conversion standards require it to consider most, if not all, Reform conversions ineffective. Likewise, the Reform movement ... will not include Humanistic Judaism or Hebrew Christian congregations under its umbrella. ... Yet only the Orthodox are pilloried for their principles.”

On campus, Shafran points to a story in Arizona State University’s daily paper about chasidim at the Wall who threw a rock at the head of paraplegic, because he was operating an electric wheelchair on Shabbat. The paraplegic was then “blinded by his blood.” Who needs to fact check when the story sounds so typically Orthodox? The article was recommended for publication by the chairman of the university’s journalism department and the director of the school’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism.

Two weeks later, the student who wrote the article admitted she made it all up.

The problem is being addressed at Columbia. The Scripps Howard Foundation is sponsoring a trip to Israel for selected students from Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism. The trip, part of a 16-week course on journalism, religion and spiritual life, directed by Ari Goldman, a former religion writer for The New York Times, who says the program is “totally unprecedented at the journalism school.” As most reporters are ignorant of the religions they cover, even their own religion, the course attempts to instill reporters-in-training with an intimate understanding of religion and its impact on everything from education to politics.


JWR contributor Jonathan Mark is Associate Editor of the New York Jewish Week. Let him know what you think by clicking here.



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© 2000 Jonathan Mark