Friday, April 4, 1997 | return to: national


How a small Orthodox group wrote a national story

by DEBRA NUSSBAUM COHEN, Jewish Telegraphic Agency

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"They seceded from the Torah community and its rabbis. How dare they say we are causing disunity?" he shouted, his face reddening with passion as he wagged his finger for emphasis.

Reporters for publications ranging from the New York Times, the Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times to the Women's Catholic News service and the weekly New York Jewish Press scribbled in their notebooks as TV cameras from most of the major networks and cable news stations recorded the event from the back of the crowded room.

It was the best-attended news conference ever convened by the Union of Orthodox Rabbis of the United States and Canada, its director, Rabbi Hersh Ginsberg, said in an interview afterward.

The rabbinical union was founded 95 years ago on the Lower East Side of New York by European-born Orthodox rabbis, and while it was once considered influential and was led by some of the most prominent Orthodox rabbis of the day, it has largely lost the luster it enjoyed in an earlier era.

How this group managed to muster the attention of the country's most important media is, in part, the story of a successful public relations strategy.

It can also be attributed to two other factors:

*Many reporters from secular media, unfamiliar with the distinctions among the many groups that claim to speak for Torah-true Judaism, were unable to judge the newsworthiness of the story.

*The schism between liberal and Orthodox Jews has grown so large that it has begun to attract attention in the world at large.

The rabbinical union has a membership roster listing 582 Orthodox rabbis, among them some well-known figures from the centrist Orthodox world, including the deans of Yeshiva University.

Yet none of these centrist Orthodox figures was in sight at Monday's news conference at Manhattan's Hilton Hotel.

Sitting on either side of the podium were a dozen members of the rabbinical union's executive committee, their names known only within ultrareligious circles, and all but one of them apparently eligible long ago to collect social security.

The group, hitherto little-known outside of ultrareligious circles, has received major media coverage since it went public last week declaring that the Reform and Conservative movements are "not Judaism."

Rabbinical union representatives made their position official at Monday's news conference by giving it the force of Jewish law, in what they labeled "a historic declaration."

Yet there is nothing new about the policies that they presented to the media as new developments.

A book titled "The Last Generation" was published in 1937 with the endorsement of 300 rabbis whose thesis was that Reform and Conservative claims on Judaism were dangerous and false.

And for years the rabbinical union has placed advertisements in Jewish newspapers shortly before the High Holy Days, informing people that Jewish law prohibits worship at non-Orthodox synagogues.

They say that it is in fact better to pray alone at home -- even if it means not hearing the shofar being blown on Yom Kippur -- than to join services at a Reform or Conservative congregation.

The rabbinical union began placing the ads so long ago that Ginsberg said he cannot remember when the first one ran, and they have done it every year since, he said.

"This [declaration] is a reaffirmation" of the long-held view, he admitted.

In fact, the prohibition against worshipping at liberal Jewish services is observed by most Orthodox Jews, whose view of Judaism differs dramatically from the way the Reform and Conservative movements interpret it.

Years ago, the two giants of Torah Judaism most revered by mainstream Orthodox Jews in this generation -- Rabbis Moshe Feinstein and Joseph Soloveitchik -- ruled that liberalized Judaism is forbidden.

At the news conference, Ginsberg, Hollander, and some of the other speakers tried to make clear a distinction between rejecting liberal Jews, who they say are "innocent" and "being misled," and rejecting their denominations and beliefs, which they described as "heretical."

Reform and Conservative leaders quickly and loudly rejected the declaration . Other more mainstream Orthodox groups also acted quickly last week to publicly reject the rabbinical union's divisive approach, although many of their members privately agree with the group's belief that the liberal movements do not offer valid Judaism.

The message from the rabbinical union, and the resulting flurry of news releases from Orthodox and non-Orthodox groups, left a number of reporters from secular news outlets thoroughly confused.

Even after Monday's news conference, some reporters walked away saying that they still do not understand who the rabbinical union is and who it represents.

Yet the group's rejection of liberal Judaism will continue to get widespread coverage, simply because the sometimes-skewed rules of pack journalism dictate that if something gets a lot of press attention, then every media outlet feels compelled to cover it, even if it isn't newsworthy.

Ironically, it is a formerly secular Jewish woman, Basha Oka, who is engineering the rabbinical union's public relations coup.

Oka, who joined the Lubavitch community several years ago, has also worked to publicize the view of some Lubavitch in the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn that the late rebbe, Menachem Schneerson, was the messiah.

In a telephone interview, Oka said she had tried to get advance coverage of the rabbinical union's statement by tipping off reporters at the country's largest daily newspapers that the group was about to issue its policy decision.

The New York Times reporter, among others, didn't return her calls, Oka said last week. But she did get through to the religion writer at the Los Angeles Times, which published a front-page story on Saturday, March 22.

That prompted the Associated Press wire service and the New York Times to run articles on the split, moving the story into the national consciousness among Jews and non-Jews alike.

Part of the reason the story elicited so much attention was that several news outlets initially -- and wrongly -- reported that the rabbinical union had, in fact, rejected liberal Jews as Jews altogether.

In explaining the group's outreach to the wider world, Ginsberg said: "We had to go out to the world" with the declaration.

"If we were going to keep it secluded in the Jewish press, the Reform and Conservatives wouldn't hear about it."

Rabbi Eric Yoffie, president of the Reform movement's Union of American Hebrew Congregations, has his own take on why the story is gaining such currency.

"This kind of rancor in the Jewish community tends to draw the attention of the press, which is why we try and avoid it," said Yoffie.

The Reform leader, who has also expressed outrage at the rabbinical union's positions, sees the story signaling some positive steps for U.S. Jews, though.

"The American Jewish community is not as small and vulnerable as it once was," he said, "so we're more prepared to engage in this kind of public debate."

Copyright Notice (c) 1997, San Francisco Jewish Community Publications Inc., dba Jewish Bulletin of Northern California. All rights reserved. This material may not be reproduced in any form without permission.


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