There was a sign outside the apartment in Borough Park where Leiby Kletzky’s family was sitting shiva for him last week that said: “DO NOT share rumors, stories and information you have heard – at all!!”
Many newspapers quoted the words of the sign and then immediately violated its proscription by going on in graphic detail about the abduction and grisly murder of the 8-year-old Haredi boy. But one paper that did not detail the “rumors, stories and information” was Hamodia, a Brooklyn paper that calls itself “the Daily Newspaper of Torah Jewry.”
From the time Leiby was reported missing, Hamodia used its pages to help get the word out. It covered the extensive search for Leiby and told of the 3,000 volunteers who scoured the neighborhood “block by block” looking for clues. It also praised “the Catholic, Asian and Pakistani communities” for handing out flyers with information and for alerting people to “keep an eye out for the missing boy.”
Addressing its own readership, Hamodia asked them to “daven and say tehillim for the safe return of Yehudah ben Ita Esther.”
When the body of Leiby was found, it was a major story, both in New York and around the world. The murder had all the earmarks of a classic tabloid story: A missing child, a search, clues, a surveillance video, dashed hopes, blood and dismemberment. But it had more than that. It also parted the curtains on a private and insular community that the public rarely gets to see. And then it had the ultimate surprise: the suspected killer was not from the outside, but one of its own, a Jew named Levi Aron.
The Daily News and the New York Post outdid each other with sensational headlines, like “Gone in a Flash,” “Monster,” “Every Parent’s Nightmare,” “Twisted,” “Confessions of a Lunatic” and “the Butcher of Brooklyn.”
While the tabloids were on the story from the beginning, reporting the disappearance of the boy and the search that was underway, the New York Times came to it late. The Times, which generally shies away from “missing children” stories, did not write about Leiby until he was found dead. Then they pulled out all the stops.
The Times was, to be sure, more understated than the tabloids, but all the gory details of the murder were there. Over the next few days, the paper explored the story from every angle, including a front page report on what the Orthodox community has done in recent years to investigate sexual predators in its midst. Joseph Berger wrote a touching article about the ritual of shiva and Clyde Haberman did a sensitive interview with the father of another celebrated kidnap victim, Etan Patz.
Hamodia’s coverage, on the other hand, was incredibly restrained. An article about Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly’s press conference only suggested the horror without detailing it. “Every piece of information increased the pain within the press briefing room,” the unnamed Hamodia reporter wrote without telling what the information was. “Seasoned reporters – who have heard it all – were visibly shaken by the steady shower of facts.”
Later in the article, the writer added: “One reporter asked if the suspect is a member of the same community. Mr. Kelly paused, seemingly looking for a tactful way to respond, then simply said that the suspect was dressed as an Orthodox Jew.”
Only once in Hamodia is the suspect’s name mentioned and this was in an Associated Press story that was heavily edited to fit Hamodia’s standards.
Rabbi Avi Shafran, director of public affairs at Agudath Israel of America and an editor at another Haredi publication, Ami Magazine, said that the restraint shown by Hamodia “was very characteristic” of such papers. “Events may be important, but grisly details are seen as unseemly to write about,” he said. “And what’s more, children read such papers too and there is a haredi reluctance to expose young kids to such details.”
Indeed, the articles in Hamodia focused on prevention and intervention, among them “What to Say to Your Child,” “Suggestions for Parents in Dealing with Child Trauma,” “Rules of Conduct in an Insane World” and “Where Do We Go From Here?”
Perhaps the most eloquent writing about the tragedy came in Hamodia’s account of Leiby’s funeral. None of the details of the death were rehearsed here. The writer, again unnamed, also stretched to find universal themes in the tragedy. Here are some excepts:
Sorrow of epic proportions emanated from the crowds in Borough Park on Wednesday night. Tens of thousands of anguished mourners from near and far stood sobbing unrestrainedly, shoulder to shoulder, at the levayeh of Leiby Kletzky, z”l, the 8-year-old boy abducted on Monday and murdered.
Loud sobs erupted from the crowd as the shattered father, Reb Nachman Kletzky, stood in front of the aron and stoically thanked Hashem for the few precious years he and his family were zocheh to share with his beloved son.
The massive levayeh, attended by Jews and non-Jews of all backgrounds, exhibited both the indomitable achdus of Klal Yisrael and the common threat of all humanity. Litvish, Chassidish, and Sefardi Jews of all religious levels, as well as every ethnicity and age group, were represented by those who went and cried over the loss of a precious life cut short, and a family left in profound pain.
As I read the restrained Hamodia coverage I thought that there was more involved here than just, as Rabbi Shafran said, protecting the children from the “grisly details.” Hamodia was playing a healing role in the community, much like the mainstream press did in the aftermath of the terrible events of 9/11. Remember back then? The mainstream press refrained from showing certain horrific images, like mangled body parts and people leaping to their death from the towers. The mainstream press also wrote hagiographic tributes to the fallen that made them seem more like heroes and angels than human beings.
In its coverage of the Leiby Kletzky tragedy, Hamodia reminds us that there are times for restraints, limits and self-censorship. Not everything has to be sensationalized. Mainstream journalism can learn something from them.