Being an Ultra-Orthodox Woman in Journalism in the Time of Coronavirus

Ultra-Orthodox journalist Efrat Finkel isn’t concerned by the absence of women’s pictures in the newspaper for which she writes, but believes the secular media is demonizing her community in Israel

Itay Stern
Itay Stern
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Efrat Finkel.
Efrat Finkel. She embarked on her media career entirely by chance.Credit: Meged Gozani
Itay Stern
Itay Stern

High status in ultra-Orthodox (or Haredi) society entails obligations, even more so than in secular society. But Efrat Finkel has not trod the traditional path for which she was destined.

A scion of the Slabodka yeshiva (among the leaders of the Musar movement in Eastern Europe, which emphasizes moral introspection) and a granddaughter of the head of the largest yeshiva, Mir, in the Haredi world, at 26 she is single, an editor at the Walla Judaism website, presenter of a current events program for Haredi women on public radio and writer for the Haredi weekly Bakehila.

Our interview was postponed several times when she was forced to go into home quarantine after returning from a trip to Europe. When we finally spoke via video chat (she in Bnei Brak; I in Tel Aviv), she turned out to be a sharp-tongued young woman, a profound believer in the Holy One, Blessed be He, and the gods of the internet, who can recognize clickbait even as she is making the blessing over the food she puts in her mouth.

Finkel toed the line as a child, she says: She lived in Jerusalem’s Geula neighborhood with her parents and six siblings, and proved an outstanding student at the secondary school for Haredi girls.

She embarked on her media career entirely by chance: She had left a steady, well-paying job at a bank to go on an educational mission to Belarus. Upon the advice of an aunt, she began blogging about her life. That modest blog became a success and when she returned to Israel, Finkel received a job offer from an advertising company that works on digital media for the ultra-Orthodox community. Soon afterward, she boosted her online profile by joining various social media sites, including Twitter, where she remains a regular poster.

She followed that by working at the Pashkevil website, which deals with the advertising profession in the ultra-Orthodox world. Unlike the Haredi weekly where she writes today, Pashkevil published images of women.

Efrat Finkel in a scene from the Israeli documentary "Neiss."Credit: From the show "Neiss"

“I am completely OK with that,” she says of the absence of female imagery in Bakehila. “Ultimately, a newspaper is a business. If those publications put in pictures of women, they would chase away their base and their readership. I didn’t go into journalism in order to disseminate pictures of myself and for people to see that I’m pretty; I went into journalism in order to share my words. And these – everyone sees. I want my articles to speak, not my picture. That’s all I need: for people to read me not because of how I look, but because of what I have to say. In this sense, Haredi journalism gives full access to women.”

Finkel cites the Orthodox weekly Yated Ne’eman as an example. “An aunt of mine has been writing there for years,” she says. “Women can express an opinion there and everything. It’s not only in women’s publications. The only thing that isn’t there is images [of women].

“There are lots of Haredim who don’t want to look at pictures of women – these are the same people who will walk down the street and avert their gaze if they pass a woman. It doesn’t matter what you and I think about this on the personal level. Why shouldn’t we respect them? If we chase them away from this arena as well, what will be left for them to read? After all, they don’t have the internet. Should we beat our heads against the wall with them? These are their values and beliefs; I have no interest in fighting them.”

Most feminists would say women have basic rights that can’t be relinquished, and that first and foremost among them is female participation in the public sphere.

“I’m not scared by this discussion; every question is worthy. However, the only values that cannot be eradicated are the values of religion. They come way ahead of pluralism and liberalism and feminism, which I do not scorn at all. But I do believe that when people come along and say that women are eradicated from the Haredi space, this is a superficial worldview.

“Women in ultra-Orthodox society are really dominant; they are the main breadwinners. The Haredi woman’s voice is not silenced in any way. These women are lionesses who succeed both outside the home and in the home. It’s simply ridiculous to say their voice is silenced. In the newspaper Bakehila, there are many female writers. They just don’t put their pictures in, just like they don’t put in the pictures of male writers.”

Not Haredi-lite

She can currently be seen in the Israeli documentary series “Neiss” (Yiddish for “news”), the first episode of which was broadcast on Kan 11 in Israel earlier this month. The show, which is also available on Kan YouTube, is directed by Ayelet Efrati and Zvika Binder.

She is an example of a Haredi individual we do not see enough on our television screens. She is up to date on current events and the discourse on identity politics. She is also a signatory to a large investigative study that examined racism in the Haredi educational system toward Mizrahi girls (those of Middle Eastern or North African origin). She emphasizes that she is not “Haredi-lite,” as might be misconstrued by her willingness to participate in “Neiss.” She is also unhappy with the Israeli media, which she says demonizes her community. She is especially irked by the work of Israeli TV journalist Amnon Levy, whose interviews with the Haredi community create superficial stories that exacerbate the lack of trust between secular and Haredi society, she says.

Finkel says her parents happily accepted her career decision, but that she does not always encounter the same level of understanding in the matchmaking world. “I always say that being in the media hasn’t hurt me at all,” she says. “I continue to meet with young men” – the parlance in her community is bachurim (boys) – “from really good yeshivas, and they continue to want me on some level. However, it could be that there are some who don’t want me because I work in the media – but I simply don’t know about that.

Efrat Finkel in Bnei Brak, March 2020.Credit: Meged Gozani

“I can say that the bachurim do ask me where I want to get to. They are interested in understanding whether I want to become a news presenter on Channel 12 or whether I’d be satisfied with being a presenter on Kan Moreshet: that’s the difference,” she says, referring to the main Israeli public broadcaster and a Haredi radio station. “I, of course, am very straightforward and say that from my perspective, I’d be happy to present the news on the BBC. I don’t make any concessions. I don’t have any limitations, apart from the limitations of religious law. I wouldn’t work on Shabbat, for example.”

Do you feel the Haredi sphere doesn’t accept the fact that you aren’t married yet and a mother?

“That I haven’t married and haven’t had children – that’s really a downer. I wanted to get married and I wanted to give birth to children. It’s not that I’m telling myself that my career takes preference so I’m setting the matchmaking aside. Really not. I can meet with two bachurim a month. To my regret, I am also developing a fabulous matchmaking career” for others.

If you had to report on social issues, like demonstrations for LGBTQ rights, how would you deal with that as a Haredi journalist?

“This would raise a question within me – I’d go ask a rabbi. There are two kinds of rabbis: Those who adjudicate on Jewish law, and those who are more about the worldview. I would go to a rabbi who adjudicates and ask at the level of black and white: permitted or forbidden? I’m not interested in whether it’s OK from society’s point of view or whether people take a dim view of it. The only thing that interests me is the orders of the Holy One, blessed be He, in whom I very much believe, and I choose Him as an adult person.

“If there are things I am forbidden to report on at the level of Jewish law, I won’t do it – even at the price of losing the scoop of a lifetime. But most things are permitted for reporting; Jewish law isn’t going to destroy my career. There is a concept, for example, called ‘slander to serve an end.’ To the best of my understanding, and from what I know, if, say, a person is a sexual harasser, then it is a mitzvah [good deed or commandment] to publish that. But if there is any uncertainty, I will go ask a rabbi and I will do what he tells me.”

In “Neiss,” the conflict between commitment to truth and commitment to faith arises. Journalism, at least from a secular perspective, has to be driven by seeking out the truth and presenting the facts as they are. But what happens when the facts run contrary to Jewish law? Even in the context of the coronavirus, there were some rabbis arguing that its origins were in people who committed sins. How do you function in that space?

“I honestly don’t think that seeking the truth contradicts my religious faith. There is no problem in Jewish law with criticizing social phenomena and criticizing certain moves by politicians. I don’t think the fact that I’m ultra-Orthodox is supposed to prevent me from speaking my truth, and I go with my truth all the way. I think my journalistic ethics are in no way inferior to those of a secular reporter. Incidentally, even in the matter of the coronavirus, yes, maybe there have been all kinds of statements by all kinds of rabbis. But if you look at the rabbis’ instructions concerning how to deal with it, they are coordinated with the Health Ministry’s recommendations – even concerning synagogues.”

It was reported recently that following a ruling by Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky, yeshiva learners continued to gather and study in the yeshivas, in total contravention of the Health Ministry instructions. What did you think about that?

“I think it is very difficult for a secular person to understand: we really do speak two different languages. The most interesting thing is that I was recently walking in Rabin Square [in Tel Aviv] and saw a yoga lesson bursting with people. So that is OK but Rabbi Chaim isn’t? I understand the public’s tension, but it’s amazing that it’s so selective. It seems clear that if there were a total lockdown [this interview took place before further restrictions were imposed], Rabbi Chaim wouldn’t say what he said. But at the moment, they [the government] have allowed every workplace to decide independently whether it’s essential work or not, so he decided that Torah study is essential.

A protest by the ultra-Orthodox community in Jerusalem.Credit: From the show "Neiss"

“My essence as an ultra-Orthodox person is to obey the Torah sages. The person who determines for the rank and file Haredim is the Torah authority. We choose this, and really believe in them and their broad vision. The Haredim consult the rabbi about which gynecologist to see; whether to have prenatal ultrasounds; at which hospital to give birth; which school to attend. The thought that there is any other qualified authority from a Haredi person’s perspective is, in the best case, an illusion. Even the recognized and authorized political personages in Israel derive their clout and authority from the rabbis who instruct people to vote for them. Therefore, when a universal crisis like this one comes along, it’s the rabbis who can decide.

“The rabbis, who have no concerns about investigative commissions and whose considerations are devoid of any panic, have taken into account the cost versus the benefit of sending tens of thousands of children home to roam the streets. And they decided that the cost was greater than the benefit – in both respects, spiritual and physical. Spiritual damage and wasting of time that could be spent learning Torah is a significant consideration that is hard to explain to a secular person.”

On the seamline

Despite the gap that Finkel notes, it appears that the secular media world is becoming more accessible to the ultra-Orthodox, with Haredi journalists increasingly seen and heard on prime time slots. These include Channel 12 News’ Sivan Rahav Meir; Kobi Arieli, who presents a daily show on Army Radio; and Michael Shemesh, a political reporter on Channel 11. Fictional TV shows like “Shtisel,” “Shababnikim” and “Matir Agunot” also cast a flattering spotlight on Haredi communities.

Finkel herself presents her radio show on Kan Moreshet together with standup comedian Henya Shochat. Their program deals with issues important to Haredi women, as well as current events.

“There is a certain tendency on women’s programs, certainly on the community’s stations, to deal with lifestyle and raising children,” Finkel says. “We came along and said: ‘Enough of that.’ Women are interested in exactly the same issues as men are, and it’s necessary to have a women’s program that deals with current events.

“We dealt with the coronavirus in the context of Purim,” she says. “In the week of the election, we talked about what was happening in politics. This is slightly more ‘dainty’ current events, but, nevertheless, current events.”

Do you think that, despite the increasing Haredi presence on our television screens, ultra-Orthodox society is still suffering from demonization?

“It’s not a question of whether there is or isn’t demonization; it’s clear that there is. I have a lot of secular girlfriends and my home is very open. They’d come over and see my father – a man with a suit and a hat and a beard. He would sit and talk with them, and they became acquainted with a nice, intelligent person who is familiar with the world and who debated the topics of the day with them – and they would be dumbfounded. They’d ask me: ‘Why aren’t there any ultra-Orthodox people like him on television?’

“Even as a teenager, I understood that Haredi people like my father don’t appear on television. As a media person, I understand this because the media wants to cover yellow journalism. A [Haredi] demonstration against women or against the Israel Defense Forces, for example. But in the task of making Israeli society accessible in all its varieties – it has failed utterly. The Haredi public doesn’t really care how it is perceived. This affects mainly those who are on the seamline, like me: someone who is living between the two worlds and is encountering the outside world.”

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