As more and more Orthodox Jews moved into the Five Towns in the last two decades, store owners had one choice: close on Shabbat or lose Orthodox customers.
There have been other clashes over zoning issues as large Orthodox families sought to expand the size of their homes, and over the erection of an eruv or boundary within which observant Jews are permitted to carry on the Sabbath. And a running battle over what many Orthodox Jews considered wasteful spending by the Lawrence School Board resulted in four successive school budget defeats and the ousting of four of the seven non-Orthodox board members.
Now, another part of the community has fallen to the Orthodox — the local Jewish weekly newspaper, the Jewish Star.
When it was first started about five years ago, the Jewish Star served the entire Jewish community, but recently began providing news exclusively for “the Orthodox communities of the south shore,” as it says on its cover. The sudden change late last year prompted charges that it is being divisive.
“The overarching principle of public policy decisions should be klal yisrael [one people],” said Rabbi Sholom Stern, spiritual leader of Temple Beth El, a Conservative congregation in Cedarhurst. “When you don’t begin with that premise, the one who withdraws is waiting for self-destruction and eventually will end up with nothing. That is the tragedy of all this. It’s lamentable.”
Such a decision, Rabbi Stern said, causes isolation, which is “not good when we have such a small Jewish community to start with. … An isolationist policy will result in more division and that results in self-destruction.”
But Mayer Fertig, the paper’s publisher and editor-in-chief, said the paper’ s change in coverage was done for “economic reasons” only. “We don’t think we are being divisive,” he said. “We are reflecting a division that is already occurring” in the community.
“The Orthodox are now the majority [in areas of the Five Towns],” Fertig added. “We are not limiting our reading. We are making it appeal to the largest segment of the community, which is Orthodox. We are not looking to disenfranchise anybody or hurt anybody’s business. The paper was not as appealing when it was broadly appealing and we have caught up to the market. Circulation has certainly increased” since the change.
But Allan Greene, president of Temple Hillel, a 450-family Conservative congregation in Valley Stream, said that when he learned of the change late last year, he contacted the Jewish Star and asked that it no longer leave a bundle of its free papers at his synagogue each week. “Obviously my preference is that if there is a newspaper covering the Jewish area … it should cover the entire Jewish area and not just the Orthodox section,” he explained. “That becomes divisive and we all should be working together.”
Greene added that the publisher is free to print what he wishes and that he does not view his decision as “a slap in the face.”
“But if they are not going to cover what we do, we should not be distributing their paper,” he said, adding that the synagogue would no longer place ads in the paper.
Copies of the paper were also routinely dropped off at Temple B’nai Sholom, another Conservative synagogue in Rockville Centre. Its spiritual leader, Rabbi Barry Schwartz, said he called the paper last week when it was brought to his attention that the paper’s masthead now reads: “Serving the Orthodox communities of the South Shore.” It used to read, “Serving the Jewish communities of the South Shore.”
“The irony of this is that I was at the founding meeting of the Jewish Star” about five years ago, he said. “I was invited to write articles on the holidays and when I went to Rome I was interviewed about the trip. … I thought the original concept of the paper was great. The paper was needed and it did a fairly decent job.”
Rabbi Schwartz said he had placed the weekly stack of the Jewish Star at the entrance to his synagogue for members to take. “I thought it was good for them to hear what was going on in the community and the Jewish world,” he said.
But now that the paper no longer covers anything but the Orthodox community, Rabbi Schwartz said it is no longer serves his community. The paper’s owner, Clifford Richner, said he decided to change the paper’s focus in response to “input I received from those who are the core of our readers — and it’s not the Reform or Conservative Jews but Orthodox families. They want a newspaper in their home that deals with Jewish life from an Orthodox perspective.”
He pointed out that his family has owned another area weekly, the Nassau Herald, since 1964 and that it provides coverage “across the religious spectrum.”
The paper just won the first place prize in education coverage from Suburban Newspapers of America, Richner noted. “I have never felt there was a market for a paper geared for any particular group other than the Orthodox, who have their own institutions and schools,” he said. “If a person is a Reform or Conservative Jew here, chances are his children are attending public schools. If you are Orthodox, your kids are going to yeshiva and we need to cover it.”
But Asher Matathias of Woodmere, a professor of political science at St. John’s University, last week widely distributed an e-mail in which he complained that the Jewish Star’s decision was an “assault on our communal equilibrium.”
One person wrote back: “I hope this is not the beginning of a schism among the Jews in our area. We certainly have enough problems from outsiders; we don’t have to create more problems among ourselves.”
But Fertig, the paper’s publisher, insisted that the paper’s intention is not to create division but to reflect the wishes of its prime readers. “When Willlie Sutton was asked why he robbed banks, he said it was because that is where the money is,” Fertig added. “If the paper wishes to thrive, it has to follow its audience.”