A media debate that dared not speak its name

A media debate that dared not speak its name

Jewish editors ponder their roles in aftermath of same-sex brouhaha

NJJN editor-in-chief Andrew Silow-Carroll speaks at a Jewish journalism panel discussion as Rebecca Boroson, editor of The Jewish Standard, looks on. Photo by Lori Silberman Brauner
NJJN editor-in-chief Andrew Silow-Carroll speaks at a Jewish journalism panel discussion as Rebecca Boroson, editor of The Jewish Standard, looks on. Photo by Lori Silberman Brauner

The more than 100 people attending a panel on Jewish journalism had no choice but to wait until the end of the program to hear a discussion of what was on everyone’s minds: the brouhaha following a Jewish newspaper’s apology over publishing a same-sex wedding announcement.

The discussion at the Jewish Center of Teaneck on Dec. 12 featured editors and publishers of four Jewish weeklies.

Moderator and organizer Rabbi Lawrence Zierler, the synagogue’s rabbi, sought to focus on the papers’ editorial independence, the challenge of reaching out to a diverse Jewish audience, and stories the journalists have regretted publishing — or wished they had published.

And yet the “elephant in the room,” as one audience member put it, was a controversy in October, when the Jewish Standard, which covers Bergen County, Hudson County, and parts of Passaic County, printed an announcement of the upcoming same-sex wedding of two Jewish communal workers. A week later, the Standard reversed its policy on publishing such announcements and apologized “for any pain we may have caused” to members of the “traditional/Orthodox community.”

What ensued was a firestorm of criticism from supporters of publication of the original announcement, and talk of a widening rift between the area’s sizable Orthodox community and the non-Orthodox movements.

The controversy was directly discussed only in the question-and-answer session of the two-hour forum, when Norman Levin, former executive director of Congregation B’nai Israel in Millburn and a Teaneck resident, expressed his dismay over the Standard’s handling of the announcement and its aftermath.

He noted that the newspaper posted some 300 comments on-line from readers expressing displeasure over the apology, as opposed to two letters in favor of the decision. Why then, he asked, had the Standard published only four letters in its print edition, two pro and two con?

“Believe me, we printed what we got,” said Rebecca Boroson, editor of the Standard. She explained that the website served as an “overflow” for the volume of print letters received, suggesting the print and on-line versions should not be treated in isolation. She also noted that the “strongest” voices often come from those who call the newspaper to complain, not those who write letters.

Panelist Andrew Silow-Carroll, New Jersey Jewish News editor-in-chief, suggested that taking the pulse of the Jewish community is not as easy as simply counting heads or opinions. Given the size and influence of Teaneck’s Orthodox community, for example, it is hard to dismiss its rabbis and Orthodox institutions as mere “minority voices” within the community.

“How do you weigh those voices?” he asked. The Orthodox “are indisputably powerful” and wield “institutional might,” said Silow-Carroll, if for no other reason than when it comes to Jewish life, the Orthodox “show up” in ways disproportionate to their percentage of the Jewish population.

Sam Norich, publisher of the Forward, said the local controversy mirrored similar fights in Israel over “Who is a rabbi?” and other issues. The Orthodox minority, he said, is trying to make its interpretation of Judaism “normative” for the rest of the Jewish world. “That was not Orthodoxy 20 years ago,” said Norich.

Blogging about the event the next day, panelist Gary Rosenblatt, editor and publisher of the New York Jewish Week, wrote that the editors share a common goal.

“The consensus was that the goal is to be professional and credible, while always pushing the boundaries of what’s acceptable to report on, combining courage and common sense,” he wrote.

The controversy in Teaneck has led to a broader discussion of Jewish diversity in the area. On Dec. 9, rabbis from the Conservative, Orthodox, and Reform movements discussed the issue at a forum in Tenafly. The Standard itself devoted much of a follow-up issue of the paper to various opinions on both gay marriage and the role of a Jewish newspaper. Its publisher, James Janoff, wrote that the paper “may have acted too quickly in issuing the follow-up statement, responding only to one segment of the community,” but has not yet announced the paper’s policy on same-sex announcements going forward.

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