In the Family Way

The weekly magazine Mishpacha (Family) has found the formula which made it a success amongst its Ultra-Orthodox readers: It deals with subjects ranging from women's issues, to finance, to Torah study - all produced with due modesty.

Shahar Ilan
Shahar Ilan
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Shahar Ilan
Shahar Ilan

The ultra-Orthodox public has its own publishing family, the Paleys. Their flagship publication is Mishpacha (Family), a magazine whose sales have soared from 7,000 copies a week 10 years ago to almost 45,000 copies today. Slightly more than half the copies that are sold come out in three editions in English, and are distributed in Israel and abroad. Publisher Eli Paley is also now starting to plan a French edition.

The success of Mishpacha is especially noteworthy in light of recent changes in the Haredi press: It is no longer the "positive" and "responsible" press of the past, but an aggressive one that attacks anyone who thinks differently, including people who don't publish news items. Mishpacha does not attack as a matter of principle. If in the past the Haredi press claimed that instead of an ethics committee, it had a so-called spiritual committee, the writers of this weekly promise to abide both by the ethics code of the Israel Press Council and by the dictates of the spiritual committee. In the event of a clash, the spiritual committee takes preference, of course.

Mishpacha was founded as a monthly in December 1987, and marked the first attempt to publish a Haredi magazine. The monthly became a weekly at the beginning of 1991. The founder and first editor was Asher Zuckerman, a blunt and outspoken journalist. Zuckerman was the partner of Haredi contractor and wheeler-dealer Yehuda (Yudke) Paley. The publication piled up debts, and the partnership disbanded. Zuckerman founded the newspaper Hashavua (The Week), which has since become Sha'ah Tovah (A Favorable Time) and gained notoriety for its incitement campaigns in the 1990s against the late prime minister Yitzhak Rabin and Supreme Court President Aharon Barak.

'Marginal' news

Yehuda Paley entrusted the entire project to his son Eli, who became managing editor and owner. Now 41 and the father of six, Eli was at that time a 26-year-old yeshiva student. For the post of editor-in-chief, he brought in Moshe Grylak, the first editor of Yated Neeman, the newspaper of the late Lithuanian Haredi leader Rabbi Eliezer Schach. Paley also enlisted Rabbi Menachem Cohen as the chair of the weekly's spiritual committee (see box).

"We didn't have the tools for putting out a paper," recalls Paley. "I had to invent the wheel, to understand what a newspaper is and what it means to be an editor and what it means to handle a budget. I've come a long and very, very difficult way."

Paley says it was not marketing considerations that led him to create such a solid and soft-spoken publication at first. "I naively thought that that is how a newspaper should look. The only person who came with media experience was Rabbi Grylak, and that was his worldview. After the fact, I discovered that this was what readers wanted, too."

Originally Mishpacha was a glossy magazine that contained news as well. When Paley decided in 1994 to print the news in a separate section, on newsprint, it was not only in order to improve the product, but to enable people who think that news is gossip and slander to read only the magazine. "In that way, the news, which is marginal, is a separate product," he explains.

That is not a common journalistic view - that news is marginal.

Paley: "That's true. I think this was a statement that heralded the fact that Mishpacha wanted to speak in a different voice."

How can news be marginal?

"That is the attitude toward news in the Haredi public. It's interesting and attractive, but also more gossipy, and to a certain extent that is correct."

As opposed to the organs of the Haredi parties, the independent weeklies like Mishpacha and Bakehila (In the Community) cover partisan political disputes. But even here Mishpacha rarely levels criticism at the people involved.

Your avoidance of slander does not always include the secular community.

"It includes everyone. It is only natural that we don't treat bitter rivals of the Haredi public with kid gloves, but you won't catch us making wicked statements."

Why do you have almost no investigative reports that expose corruption?

"I don't consider corruption the only news. There was a series of reports about conversion. In my opinion, even the series we did about road safety in the Haredi sector is an investigative report. On the subject of corruption there are quite a number of critical editorials that lash out mercilessly."

Mishpacha does frequently address social problems. It has published a series of articles about the shababniks - Haredi street youth - and a piece about violence in the family. It is also waging a battle against educational institutions' discrimination against Mizrahim (Jews of North African or Middle Eastern origin) and the newly religious. But it brings up these problems without mentioning names, so nobody will be hurt.

Double defeat

Up until five years ago, people connected with the Gur Hasidic community and with the organs of the Haredi parties, Hamodia and Yated Neeman, tried to organize a ban on the sale of Mishpacha, because it is an independent publication that does not accept the authority of the Haredi establishment.

Eli Paley grew up in a home where there was very little affection for this establishment. His father belonged to the Likud Party Central Committee already in 1977, and fought against the special funding that Agudat Yisrael MKs channeled mainly to the institutions of their associates. He also joined in the founding of an independent Haredi list for the Jerusalem city council. "An anti-establishment publication that is not dependent on the parties suited his spirit," explains his son.

The latest attempt to ban the distribution of Mishpacha was made about five years ago. Stores in Ashdod were prevented from selling the weekly, and an effort was made to keep it away from the two most important centers for distributing Haredi newspapers: Malchei Yisrael Street in Jerusalem and Rabbi Akiva Street in Bnei Brak. Had the attempt succeeded, it would have cut sales by half.

Mishpacha turned to the rabbinical court of the Haredi community (badatz), which is associated with the community's most extreme faction. The court forbade harassment of the magazine and threats to store owners. The organizers of the boycott thus suffered a double defeat: They were not only forced to stop their activities, but the court even granted the weekly a type of rabbinical approval.

Ratings of the press are generally measured by means of a Target Group Index (TGI) survey. The latest TGI indicated that the rate of exposure to Mishpacha in the Haredi sector in 2005 was 29.6 percent, as compared to 27.2 percent for the weekend edition of Hamodia and 23 percent for Yated Neeman. Paley today employs 150 workers, over 50 in regular positions and the rest as freelancers. Mishpacha has grown so much that recently Paley appointed a professional CEO, Yossi Wasserman, the former CEO of the secular Jerusalem weekly Kol Ha'ir. This move reflects what is happening in the capital - a Haredi press on the rise as compared to the deterioration of other local publications.

On the eve of the Shavuot festival, two leading rabbinical authorities were interviewed in Mishpacha. Five years ago, the idea that important rabbis would be interviewed in a newspaper, even a Haredi one, was a distant dream. But Mishpacha offers them a means to address one-third of the Haredi public and also to gain international exposure. In exchange, the publication gains legitimacy from the rabbis. The question is whether the independent Haredi press really strengthens such leading Torah scholars, or creates a freer public opinion and weakens them.

Would it not be correct to say that the stronger the Haredi press, the weaker the scholars are?

Paley: "What nonsense. Mishpacha serves as a platform that in my opinion not only treats the Torah scholars with respect, but causes the public to like them."

Sectoral diversity

All the important Haredi sects are represented on Mishpacha's editorial staff, not only the Ashkenazim (Jews of European origin). Deputy editor Yossi Elituv, a member of Chabad, is half Ashkenazi and half Moroccan. And Shas' spiritual leader Rabbi Ovadia Yosef is accorded the most important rabbinical title at the weekly - maran (our master), which is used for the leaders of the Ashkenazi parties.

Is producing a newspaper a calling?

"Yes. It seems to be a secular tool, but we succeed in bringing a dimension of values even to everyday life."

There was a time when journalism was considered a contemptible profession among the Haredi public.

"From his first day at work, Rabbi Grylak said that his calling is to restore to Haredi journalism the respect it had before the world war, when the best columnists and thinkers wrote for it. I think that we have largely succeeded in doing that. Mishpacha journalists are welcome guests in the homes of great Jewish scholars."

Family package

Mishpacha is not only the Haredi publication with the highest circulation. It is also the most expensive, costing NIS 14.5, almost three times as much as the competing weekly, Bakehila, which costs NIS 5. In spite of that, Mishpacha has much higher rates of exposure than Bakehila. The reason? The "package" offered by Mishpacha caters to the entire family. This package was made possible largely thanks to an investment made in 1997 via a Swiss fund called Raincom, represented here by businessman Amnon Neubach. Although Raincom owns 50 percent of the publication, the agreement is that it has no influence over content.

When Paley decided in 1999 to issue a women's supplement, he discovered that 90 percent of such sections at the time were irrelevant to his public. "You can't deal with models or with stars," he explains. Therefore, his women's supplement, called Betoch hamishpacha (Inside the Family) is billed as a "magazine for parents." And it does face some dilemmas. For example, a women's publication has to discuss breast cancer. In several of Haredi papers, the word "cancer" is replaced by "the disease." Mishpacha does use "cancer," but doesn't mention the word "breast."

"Mishpacha has given a place of honor to the Haredi woman. That is a historical development," says Dudi Zilberschlag, publisher of the competitor Bakehila, as a compliment.

In their supplements for women and children, without news content, the editors of Mishpacha sometimes introduce relatively daring subjects. They published a story in installments about a Lithuanian couple, in which the husband becomes a Hasid and the woman's world is destroyed. In secular terms, this is like a television series about a senior army officer whose son comes out of the closet. They also published the diary of a Mizrahi girl who was not accepted to an Ashkenazi teachers' seminary.

Two weeks ago, two Saint Bernards appeared on the cover of the children's section Yeladim (Children), and inside was an article about rescue dogs. To understand how exceptional that is, one should remember that dogs are considered almost as impure as pigs in Haredi society. Perhaps the most innovative section in the supplement is called IQ gavoha, anashim ba'alei inyan (High IQ, People of Interest), which last week dealt with Sempo Sugihara (a Japanese man recently named a "righteous among the nations" by Yad Vashem), who saved the students of the Mir Yeshiva in Lithuania during World War II. In the past, this section has also published articles about Alfred Nobel and Martin Luther King, and about artists such as Van Gogh and Rembrandt.

Is Mishpacha the newspaper of 'new Haredim'?

Paley: "I don't know what you mean by new Haredim. We are a magazine of the Haredi public in the broadest sense of the word."

It is hard to shake off the feeling, for example, that your publication has a positive attitude toward Haredim going out to work.

"It covers Haredi life and has a positive attitude toward the fact that large families have solutions including joining the work force."

For the past four years the Mishpacha "package" has also been complemented by a supplement on Torah-related subjects called Kulmus (Pen). This is a product that has no advertising, and thus costs the publishers money, but at Mishpacha they are convinced that it has been a major success in terms of image.

"For years," explains Paley, "Mishpacha was seen as a pleasant and popular paper that catered mainly to women and children." But the Torah studies section lends "dignity" to the publication, he adds, and caters to religious scholars as well. The latest innovation is a 12-page financial section called Mamonot (Money). Paley believes that the burgeoning Haredi middle class is thirsty for economic and consumer information, and that therefore such supplements are the next big thing in the Haredi press.

Three English editions

On the walls of Eli Paley's office hang mock-ups of Mishpacha's new initiative: pamphlets about the 39 types of work forbidden on Shabbat. These materials were published in installments in Mishpacha's English-language children's weekly, and are part of the curriculum for Haredi schools in the United States. Several of the schools have begun to purchase copies of the magazine for their students.

Even according to the most optimistic estimates, nobody at Mishpacha expected to be putting out three English editions (Israeli, American and British) within two years, numbering 22,500 copies, 17,000 of which are sold in North America. In spite of that, the editorial staff of the English edition is based in Israel. "The international edition is seen as something that goes out from Eretz Israel to the Diaspora," explains Paley, "with an 'aroma' of Eretz Israel." The English edition also has a Web site, through which one can purchase a subscription.

An Internet site?

"The entire Haredi business community, certainly in the United States, but here as well, certainly publishers, use this tool. We have limited ourselves at this stage; we are not turning into a site that provides news and attracts surfers, but are only a service site."

Will there be news, too?

"I believe so."

For now, the revenues from the English edition are based on sales, but the publication is quite weak when it comes to advertising. While the ethnic advertising market is very strong in the United States, says Paley, at present there is no awareness of the Haredi media. When this develops, he will be happy to publish advertisements - without photos of women.

In spite of his great success, Paley is an unknown figure in the Haredi community. When he walks down the street, people don't recognize him. Although he dictates the policy of Mishpacha, he rarely interferes in the ongoing work of the editors.

Do you want to publish the first independent Haredi daily newspaper in Israel?

"Not really, although I don't reject the possibility that we'll get to that. I'm not sure that it's a top priority ... We have succeeded in separating ourselves from the daily press. I'm not sure that I want to play on the field of Hamodia and Yated."

Will Mishpacha begin to cater to non-Haredi readers?

"We are already very popular among the Hardali public (Haredi nationalists). I believe that Mishpacha can be relevant to the more modern religious public as well."

Won't that require you to change?

"We won't change our core, but our children's and parents' supplements include universal content. They offer an alternative to the secular press, which many religious homes feel does not suit their lifestyle."W

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