Inside the World of ultra-Orthodox Media: Haredi Journalists Tell It Like It Is

The three main English-language Haredi publications – Hamodia, Yated Ne'eman and Mishpacha – have to set their boundaries carefully.

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Illustration by Amos Biderman.
Illustration by Amos Biderman.

Every morning, Pinchas would wake up to find his copy of Haaretz on his doorstep, crumpled.

Pinchas, then an American yeshiva student living in Jerusalem, grew frustrated – his subscription cost him good money and the newspaper somehow always came wrinkled.

Once, when he woke up earlier, he stepped outside and saw a group of yeshiva students lining up at his door, one of them holding his copy of the paper.

“That’s my newspaper!” he insisted in his American-accented Hebrew.

“There’s a line,” he was told casually, and was pointed to the end of the queue.

Years later, Pinchas Lipschutz laughs as he tells the story in the editorial office of the Haredi newspaper Yated Ne’eman. “No one would have subscribed themselves, you know, their kids wouldn’t get into school if they find out you have a Haaretz subscription,” he said. “So they read mine.”

The thirst here, among ultra-Orthodox English readers in America, for serious journalism has created a robust industry of its own – and in the past three decades, several powerful newspapers and magazines have emerged, entering thousands of Orthodox homes, gracing coffee tables and informing the masses’ Sabbath table conversations and rabbinic lectures alike. Attend any Haredi event – the funerals of saints, weddings of the children of rabbinic celebrities, the Siyum Hashas – and you’ll see a few journalists, bearded and in suits, hovering near the action with their recorders.

Here, the most powerful are the Hamodia (“The Informer”), Yated Ne’eman (“The Faithful Peg”) and the weekly Mishpacha (“Family”) magazine. Other New York religiously affiliated Jewish papers don’t count – The Jewish Week is too secular and too closely tied to the UJA-Federation of NY, and The Jewish Press and The Jewish Voice are too openly Zionist. And then there are the freebies, like the Lakewood Shopper and the Flatbush Jewish Journal, peppered with advertisements selling merits for a shidduch, good business and good health, and where the complicated mathematics of the “matchmaking crisis” are deciphered (“Danger: More than 10% of Bais Yaakov girls may God forbid never get married, may the Merciful One save us”).

While the Internet is spreading in these communities (quietly, subtly, with its own host of online gossip-heavy Haredi news sites – Yeshiva World News, Vos Iz Neis, Matzav), and insularity is becoming nearly impossible, the ultra-Orthodox community still demands print journalism. Here is a world that relies heavily on internal newspapers for local community news, with most reading taking place on the Sabbath, when all electronic devices are turned off and put away.

And it’s here, in these thick bundles, with their own brand of news reporting, opinion columns, detailed classifieds sections, Torah portion discussions, motivational (and at times melodramatic) stories – it’s here that one finds a window inside. Know a newspaper, and you’ll know its readership.

“To me, the most intriguing – and telling – window into the Orthodox world provided by its newspapers lies in the small print of its classified ads,” Agudath Israel’s spokesman Rabbi Avi Shafran once wrote, noting the classifieds listing hundreds of local community services, also known as gemachs – free secondhand baby carriages, clothing, wedding gowns, furniture, wigs, etc. – that “reflect the essence of the community.”

Yet as much as Haredi publications are defined by what they do publish, they are perhaps defined more by what is noticeably absent: celebrity gossip, sports, scandals, crime and any photographs or illustrations of women. “Our children read political analysis and Israel news instead of pop culture,” a Haredi mother tells me proudly.

So – who are the people behind these papers, these powerful opinion-makers? And is journalism still journalism when stories are censored by the all-powerful rabbis? When the editors and reporters who were interviewed for this article requested to review their own quotes before publication – a breach of mainstream journalistic ethics, certainly – what does that say about the definition of a controlled “Pravda” here?

In the offices of Hamodia, the newsroom buzz is like any other, with its staff of 80. Yet this is no typical corporate office, but rather an unassuming three-story house on the border of Boro Park and Midwood, in which the Diaspora’s only daily Jewish newspaper is produced. Circulation: About 100,000. That’s the number of households – take into account the average birthrate here, and you’ll get a better idea of its impact.

“You? You are from Haaretz?” Mrs. Ruth Lichtenstein watches me through her round glasses as I enter her office. I’m in my usual attire: wig, pearls, knee-length skirt, tights.

I smile. Yes. She motions me to sit down.

Mrs. Ruth Lichtenstein is the stern publisher, editor-in-chief, and matriarch of Hamodia. She rarely speaks to mainstream media.

“I was born into this,” she says simply, in a slight Israeli accent, and points to three black-and-white photos of elderly rabbis hanging above her desk. It was in 1950 that the daily Hebrew-language Hamodia was established in Israel by her father Rabbi Yehuda Leb Levin, the son of Rav Yitzchak Meir Levin, one of the signatories on Israel’s Declaration of Independence and a member of Knesset for over two decades. The English-language edition was established in 1998, and since then has been directed by Lichtenstein.

“I was very close with my father,” Lichtenstein says, glancing at the photograph again. “He was a visionary, an author, a Holocaust survivor. And when I stood up from shiva (mourning) for him, I promised to continue his mission, to create a very high standard for the voice of the Orthodox community, a voice for the people.”

Chaya Lipschutz, holding a copy of Hamodia newspaper, bows her head during a vigil for the victims of the Mumbai terrorist attacks, outside the Indian consulate in New York, Dec. 1, 2008.Credit: Mario Tama/Getty Images/AFP

And not a voice for the establishment?

“For the people,” she repeats.

Together, we leaf through that week’s paper: The newspaper offers a daily edition and a thicker weekly edition. Open last week’s “Features”, the news magazine, and you’ll find a set of opinion columns from Haredi rabbis to the Conference of Presidents’ Malcolm Hoenlein weighing in on the Iran deal, along with a policy debate; “On the Record” and “Overheard” offer memorable quotes from world news that week, business and employment columns, satire pages and a section on language.

The weekly Hamodia also includes a “Community” section (local news, crossing America’s Orthodox cities from Baltimore to Seattle, mostly a blur of photos of almost-identical black-hatted men), “Inyan” (“Shabbos material,” Lichtenstein explains, a glossy magazine with no politics but rather religious and inspirational material), “Binah” (a popular women’s magazine: parenting articles, fiction, recipes, advice), and the youth magazine “Binyan,” which is used across ultra-Orthodox schools to teach current events.

Lichtenstein moves quickly through the thick pile of papers on her desk, and says with a sudden smile, “We like humor, we like to laugh about ourselves.”

Lichtenstein tells me that she consults with rabbis when issues come up – with no official rabbinical council overseeing the publication. It is Lichtenstein’s piety which perhaps keeps her in power – the rabbis trust her sharp (and strict) discernment of what is kosher and not kosher to publish.

As she once wrote in a 2013 editorial celebrating Hamodia’s successes: “Countless people attest to having stopped bringing any secular papers into their homes, since there is no longer any need to do so ... A crucial part of our mission is protecting our readers’ right ‘not to know.’ Far more difficult a task than providing you with newsworthy and ethical reading material is ensuring that you, our loyal reader, aren’t exposed to material you would find unfit to enter your home, your mind and your heart.”

When I ask her how it happened that a woman presides over America’s most powerful Orthodox newspaper, she doesn’t blink. “I am aware I am in a unique position. I am not here because I am a woman. We hire because of talents, not because someone is a man or woman. I think there is confusion about the role of women in the community. They think I’m sitting here with a shawl on my face, some Taliban sitting around me,” she shakes her head.

“Haredim are too often presented in the wrong light. There is a lack of understanding of just how many groups there really are among us, and there is a lack of respect.”

But isn’t it difficult, being a woman in such a high position, in such a man’s world?

“It’s difficult because it’s hard to be a publisher,” she says. “It doesn’t matter if you’re a woman or a man. But you know what, they all saw challenges.” She points again to the photographs above her desk. “In every generation there are challenges. I continue under sometimes impossible circumstances because of the tradition I preserve. We do not compromise on our values.”

When I mention the absence of women’s photographs in Haredi newspapers, Lichtenstein explains that Hamodia’s policy is not to alter any pictures (they will not crop or photoshop women out), and then takes out a print-out that she has prepared for our meeting:

“Our policy not to publish women’s pictures is not for lack of respect for women,” she reads aloud. “After all, I am a woman and the publisher of this paper. It is just the opposite. What got lost along the way is the appreciation for modesty. The traditional role of Jewish women was to trust them with the most important element of Judaism – purity. Purity and modesty are natural to women, not public exposure. It is unfortunate that modern times deny women this precious quality and instead turn them into objects. Preserving respect for women’s rights for privacy and modesty is our guiding principle not to publish women’s pictures. We are backed by thousands of years of Jewish tradition that had women demanding their rights for modesty, purity and privacy.”

“We are a family newspaper,” she adds. “Children read it. We use language that our readers accept, that reflects our principles. We don’t sweep issues under the carpet, but we also don’t do ‘gutter journalism,’ we don’t violate the privacy of individuals. We don’t deal with our problems the way the secular media deals with them. But that doesn’t mean we don’t deal with them.”

Most notable perhaps is Hamodia’s response to local tragedies. After the murder of Leiby Kleitzky in 2011, and most recently the Brooklyn fire killing seven Orthodox Jewish children, the newspaper focused more on what Lichtenstein calls “constructive awareness” than the screaming headlines plastering other New York papers: Hamodia chose restrained coverage, avoiding the graphic details of the deaths out of respect to the families’ privacy.

In times of tragedy, Hamodia has played a “healing role in the community”, as Ari Goldman wrote in a Jewish Week editorial in 2011, praising the newspaper for its “restraint, limits and self-censorship.”

“How do you tell your child that yesterday he had a classmate and today he was murdered?” Lichtenstein asks. “These are our neighbors, our family. We do the right thing for our community, we give strength to our readers in difficult times.”

Sensationalism is not tolerated here. “We are strongly opposed to publishing rumors or any other form of irresponsible journalism. For example, we will never publish a photo or report of local Jews in Iran – it is chutzpah of any journalist to go publish information about Jews in dangerous places, and then possibly endanger them more.”

When Lichtenstein informs me that the newspaper is expanding into a digital edition. I am surprised – the Internet? Weren’t the rabbis railing against the Web for years?

She sighs. “We do not ignore the reality. We try to deal with it in the best way possible ... One hundred years ago, the concept of newspapers was revolutionary [among the Orthodox], but it was the call of the hour. So now we have to deal with the new reality. Today, it’s the Internet.”

If Hamodia’s office is unassuming – Yated Ne’eman’s is even more surprising.

Take the bus to the hills of Monsey, New York, get off the bus near the border with the Hasidic village of New Square, walk up a silent lane of suburbia, and there, in the basement of a private home, through a back door, one enters the editorial office of Yated Ne’eman.

It is here that the Yated – a weekly newspaper with a circulation of about 20,000 – is assembled, in the home of the editor-in-chief, Pinchos Lipschutz, a tall man with a long white beard and the vocal intonations of a yeshiva student. Lipschutz is one for controversy, something which likely runs in the family – he is the grandson of Yaakov Lipschutz, a leader of the Black Council, a Haredi group that fought the perils of Enlightenment and Zionism in pre-war Kovno.

The American Yated, founded in 1987, was then a branch of the eponymous Israeli Haredi paper, and in the 1990s broke away over differences of political opinion with the Israeli editorial board.

“We are an independent paper, unlike the Yated in Israel,” Lipschutz insists to me, adding that he would prefer to avoid the history of the rift. “While the Yated in Israel is tied to political agendas, we try to broaden the reach. Any Jew can read us, even if they’re not Haredi. This is unlike the Israeli Yated – if a secular person picked it up, they would be revolted. Our language, however, is more palatable in style and the way it’s presented.”

The paper was established on the insistence of Rabbi Elazar Shach, the Lithuanian-born Haredi leader and founder of the Degel HaTorah party in the Knesset. “The gedolim (great rabbis) always wanted to have Haredi newspapers,” Lipschutz says. “The rabbis worked very hard to establish a mouthpiece, a platform, in America. It took time, but we had to convince the people that this was something they needed.”

The Yated covers news (most of the reporting is syndicated from wire services, often “diluted” for the sensitive readership), biographies of rabbis, historical interest pieces, Torah wisdom and general Haredi thought (“hashkafa”). Like Hamodia, the front cover of the Yated features headlines not so different from other Jewish or Israeli papers: World events, the Iran deal, Jonathan Pollard, the Greek economic crisis, alongside the funeral of Rebbetzin Rischel Kotler, the wife of the late Rav Schneur Kotler and daughter-in-law of Lakewood scion Rav Aharon Kotler.

The mission of the paper? “Any home that has the Yated, their fear of heaven goes up 10 percent,” Lipshutz says, pointing a finger heavenward.

The staff amounts to 50 – only a handful are full-time, the rest freelancers. Most of the staff – editors, writers, designers – is female. Lipschutz’s wife, who peeks in during our meeting to offer us dinner, manages the payroll. “We run like a makolet (grocery store),” he says. “But this isn’t a parochial paper.”

Though images of women are, of course, absent, I remind him.

“It’s not even worth discussing,” he says, dismissing the question. “How am I going to explain to [that world] ... that it is something that would offend our readership, something that our rabbis don’t permit? Until the Yated, it was common to have photos of women in frum (Orthodox) papers. The Yated was a trailblazer. Our Haredi people are offended [by pictures of women]. But we try to show that Haredi Judaism does not have to be offensive. We are intelligent, productive, good people.”

But how about women’s issues? Do you write about those subjects, as more and more Haredi women are pursuing educations and careers?

“We do not write about anything sexual,” he answers.

Like most Haredi newspapers, the Yated is overseen by a rabbinic council: “Whatever they say, I defer. It’s not because we’re insular. It’s because we look for what doesn’t offend us.”

So how does a Haredi paper address sensitive issues?

Molestation is addressed in coded language only, Lipschutz explains. Gay marriage is called “untraditional marriage.” As for agunot, the women denied divorces by recalcitrant husbands: “We write about it, but it’s not a jihad of ours.”

The jihad of the Yated turns to other, clearly more pressing matters than thousands of women in chained marriages – the trial and imprisonment of meat plant manager Sholom Rubashkin, for one. Another Yated crusade is in favor of metzitzah b’peh – the circumcision ritual in which the mohel (circumciser) sucks on the child’s circumcision wound. “We really championed that one,” Lipschutz reminisces. “It has never been proven to cause a child to get sick.”

“We also have an agenda against Open Orthodoxy,” Lipschutz adds. “We see them as a danger. They operate under the radar, infiltrating synagogues everywhere. It’s a lonely battle. But it’s not Orthodoxy. It never will be. The secular world looks at Orthodoxy as rigid haters, but these [Open Orthodox] people come and they’re soft, loving. The world doesn’t know that we, too, are soft and loving, but we are bound by law. It has nothing to do with us being hateful and spiteful or unwelcoming.

“It’s not shocking that we have a persecution complex. The secular Jewish media, no offense, is locked into the mindset that religious people are all bad. They hate religion. When Netanyahu needs us, we’re best buddies, and when we’re not, we’re parasites. The secular world doesn’t interact with us; they only see the underside of Haredim. I could talk to Yair Lapid, but he wouldn’t talk to me. [To them] we are nothing. We don’t have a voice. They have talked us down to nothing. They decided what we say before we say anything.”

The modern, sunlit offices of Mishpacha magazine are located in Jerusalem’s Har Hotzvim high-tech industrial park – a far cry from the shtetls (Jewish enclaves) of Brooklyn and Monsey.

The office park, dotted with upscale glatt kosher restaurants offering business lunch deals, is known for its high rate of ultra-Orthodox employment. Come by during lunch hour, and you’ll see dozens of young religious women in wigs and office attire gossiping over sushi, and religious men standing outside fielding calls on their iPhones. Across the highway, the Orthodox neighborhood Ramot Eshkol’s apartment buildings and yeshivas rise above. Here, one senses a changing ultra-Orthodox community.

The popular weekly Mishpacha magazine, with its colorful graphics, has been carefully trying to capture that shift since its launch in English in 2004 by Eliyahu Paley.

As Orthodox Judaism’s first magazine, Mishpacha sought to be unaffiliated with any one stream.

Copies of magazine supplements for the weekly newspaper 'Mishpacha' are spread over a table at the Mishpacha office in Jerusalem.Credit: AP

“The pages of Mishpacha are open to all streams of Torah-observant Judaism,” Binyamin Rose tells me on a recent summer afternoon. Rose is Mishpacha’s news editor, frequently traveling to report for the magazine on world Jewry affairs. With a reddish-grey beard and the spectacles of a scientist or Talmudic scholar, Rose speaks in a measured, polished English. He has a degree in journalism from NYU and a reporter’s passion for details, which he applies to both his journalism and his daily prayer schedule, in which he rises for Vasikin, the morning prayer, at the break of dawn.

Rose meets me alongside his colleague, managing editor Shoshana Friedman, in Mishpacha’s conference room. In the neighboring office, several religious girls lean over a Mac desktop, designing a page layout.

Mishpacha, like Hamodia, has a family focus, with a women’s magazine called “Family First” and a children’s magazine, “Mishpacha Junior.” The English-language magazine reaches about 50,000 households weekly; about one-third of Lakewood’s Jewish households read the magazine.

Mishpacha’s readers span a wide spectrum: Their other news sources include the radio, Twitter, Haredi news sites, Fox News and CNN, the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times and Hamodia.

Staff of the English edition of the weekly newspaper 'Mishpacha' gather during a meeting at the publication's Jerusalem office, June 27, 2011Credit: AP

The need for a glossy magazine – with long-form journalism and news round-ups with interesting visuals – was a new one. “Graphics are important to us because information is cheap,” Friedman says. “We’re looking to give a full experience. Our graphics team studies mainstream magazines for ideas, to build a ‘web’-type of read.”

Though clearly Haredi, Mishpacha magazine (both its Hebrew and English editions) is considered relatively open-minded among the ultra-Orthodox. So dangerously open-minded that the Hebrew edition is still delivered in a black opaque bag to readers in Israel, lest one’s more-Haredi neighbors see and disapprove.

“One of our earliest editions addressed anorexia – not something openly discussed before in the Haredi community,” Rose says. “We write stories on mental health, on the challenges and stigmas of single parenting in our community. We’ve held symposiums on poverty – an issue that is mostly unique to the Haredi and Arab communities of Israel. We are not afraid to tackle that issue just because it’s controversial here; we discuss how to integrate Haredim into the workforce. For the Haredi community, the most important issues are family life, education, lack of affordable housing and the rising cost of living. And Israeli security, of course – everyone is worried about that.”

Eliyahu Rubinovich, CEO for Israel of 'Mishpacha,' talks with a co-worker. Credit: AP

The staff sees starting a public dialogue as a major success of the magazine: A story on breast cancer awareness motivated women to go for screenings, another story on an abused women’s shelter opened discussions on domestic abuse, features on children leaving the fold or going into drugs (the two are almost synonymous here) offer moral support to parents.

“I’ve always felt I had something to give to Jewish people,” Rose tells me. “What I’ve always found was that the two ways to be of influence in the religious community were to be a rabbi or to be wealthy. But I found a third way. I found that as a journalist I’ve had influence if I’ve given stories importance. Mishpacha gives the opportunity for people to open up discussions at home. Many of our readers grew up in closed households.”

Outside Yated Ne'eman's editorial office in Israel.Credit: Yair Ettinger

That trust took years to build. Their first interview subjects were very suspicious: Who are you, who reads you, who bans you?

Today, the magazine has built a prestigious reputation, running interviews with the highest-ranking rabbis. Yet, somehow, that isn’t enough; the magazine is still considered “liberal” ultra-Orthodox.

The staff has made a sport out of collecting the excuses they hear from extremist Haredim who secretly buy Mishpacha: “They write letters to the editor and always include an excuse: I bought it just for your monthly Jewish thought supplement, or I buy it just for the kids, or my wife said I had to read a specific article ...”

As for women’s photographs – even here, they are still omitted, though as in Hamodia and the Yated, the editorial staffs are mostly comprised of women themselves.

“This is how we avoid the objectification of women,” Rose answers to me in an earlier meeting. “Our policy is that we do not alter pictures as they are. If there is a woman in a photograph, we’ll simply use another picture.”

That’s an unsatisfying answer, I tell him.

“I can only put it like this,” he says. “Based on community standards, there are constraints for our work.”

So, if Hilary Clinton wins 2016, Mishpacha won’t have a picture of the president for the next four years?

“Israel has a policy of nuclear ambiguity – ‘we won’t say we have it,’” he says, smiling slightly. “Mishpacha isn’t going to be the first to introduce women into the magazine. If the standards were to change, it’s a subject that can be reconsidered. But I don’t like to make predictions. Today, a significant readership would object to images of women – we won’t break ranks with them.”

But later, Friedman offers me a different answer for this issue, one less of ideology and more of business: “It’s all market research,” she explains. “The religious public is moving to the right. A lot of people won’t even bring a publication into the house if there is a picture of a woman in it.”

“We’re here to service our readers and not antagonize them,” Rose says. “If you’re too strident here, you lose credibility. We aim to be forthright without antagonizing our readership.” Mishpacha’s rabbinic council reviews every article; Rose compares their function to that of a compliance department in the brokerage business. “Brokers used to joke and call the compliance department the business prevention department, but if you were an honest broker, you looked at compliance as your last line of ethical defense. The rabbinic council aren’t censors, they’re our ethical sounding board, and in that respect they keep the writers and the magazine out of trouble.”

But sometimes, there are slips. Once, an advertisement for the analgesic medication “Bengay” ran in Mishpacha: “Do you have Bengay in your cabinet?” – which could also read in Hebrew as “Do you have a gay son in the closet?” The ad, overseen by rabbinical councils of several Israeli Haredi magazines, made its rounds on the Haredi iconoclast blogosphere for weeks afterwards.

So how does the secular media report on the Haredi world? Rose and Friedman have separate answers.

“They do shallow reporting,” Rose tells me. “Every year, they write about funding for the Haredi community. If every Haredi family receives 5,000 shekels monthly (in total stipends and discounts), then that totals, for 130,000 families, 650 million shekels a year. That’s 2.25 percent of the government budget, for a sector that is 10 percent of the population. When people throw around figures like ‘Haredim are getting 1 billion shekels,’ it sounds like a huge sum, but in relation to a budget of well over 300 billion shekels, it’s not disproportionate.

“The secular media needs to keep things in proportion, do a little more homework and not just throw numbers out but rather show context. If you want to report on any sector, you have to go there. If you want to cover the Haredi world, you have to embed yourself. You can’t just sit in your living room, pontificate and parrot others’ lines.”

Friedman lists off her own answers: “The secular media perceives Haredim as closed, insular, very scared to rock the boat, with very strict rules.”

And are those perceptions true?

“The insularity is way overdone. It’s very, very hard to be insular today with the Internet. And I don’t think the rules are so strict anymore,” Friedman says.

Then she pauses.

“But ... yes,” she says slowly. “We make decisions because of very strong social pressure, I confess. Yes. We are afraid to rock the boat.”

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