I wish everyone who bemoans the fate and future of journalism in general, and Jewish journalism in particular, could have sat in on the first Jewish Scholastic Press Conference in Los Angeles two weeks ago.
The 30 editors and staffers of five Jewish high school newspapers from around the country were inspiring in their eagerness to learn more about combining journalistic skills and Jewish values in their work. Their thoughtful observations and probing questions left me feeling hopeful that they’ll continue the tradition of seeking to report with both honesty and compassion — never easy but always a worthy goal.
The four-day conference, from a Thursday to Sunday, was organized on short notice, with a shoestring budget and largely through the efforts of one dedicated, energetic teacher, Joelle Keene, a former daily newspaper reporter who teaches music and is an adviser to the school newspaper at Shalhevet, a Modern Orthodox high school with about 160 students in Los Angeles.
It was Keene who resurrected Shalhevet’s dormant school paper, The Boiling Point, about a decade ago, and found that taking a dozen or so students to national scholastic conferences, like the one at Columbia University, each year was a great motivator. The workshops, presentations and networking with hundreds of other budding journalists from around the country proved to be a highlight of the academic year for her students and gave them a deeper appreciation of the craft.
Over time The Boiling Point began to win prestigious awards for its stories, which range from those detailing school policies to student profiles to city politics and Jewish life (it has a Torah Editor on staff). Last year the paper was chosen as one of nine finalists out of hundreds of entries for a grand prize in the National Scholastic Press Association contest. But the fact that the conference took place over Shabbat created potential problems, and the Shalhevet administration decided to cancel the trip.
“Our paper was highlighted at the conference but we weren’t there,” Keene recalled. It was then that she came up with the idea of starting an association for Jewish high school journalists, and to hold an annual conference that would not only “respect the Jewish calendar” by avoiding workshops on Shabbat, but use the day of rest “to create a space to consider journalism in a Jewish way.”
Working with the support of the American Jewish Press Association (AJPA), the umbrella group of Jewish newspapers around the country, of which The Boiling Point is the only high school member, Keene invited a number of Jewish high schools in mid-August to send representatives from their school papers. While the reaction was enthusiastic, practical concerns (schedules, expenses, etc.) kept most schools from attending this year. But the Jewish High School of the Bay (San Francisco), SAR in Riverdale, and Yeshiva University of Los Angeles (YULA) sent students to join the Shalhevet contingent.
I was glad to be among the presenters, who included AJPA president Marshall Weiss, from Dayton, Ohio; Los Angeles Jewish Journal’s editor, Rob Eshman, and its president, David Suissa; Jacob Kamaras, editor of JNS, a Jewish wire service; several student editors from an elite Los Angeles private school with a newspaper staff of 70, who offered tips on layout, design and state-of-the-art technology; Yosef Kanefsky, rabbi of the host congregation, Bnai David; and Jenny Medina, a Los Angeles-based New York Times national correspondent who is an observant Jew.
Rabbi Kanefsky led an insightful study session on whether or not the strict laws of lashon hara, forbidding gossip, should even apply to journalists. One of the sources he cited was a 2001 article by a Florida endodontist in the Journal of Halacha and Contemporary Society that emphasized journalistic restrictions on exposing wrongdoers. The author asserted that no action be taken “without strict halachic supervision” and that “one must first confront the individual privately, attempting to gently persuade him to make amends.”
Would such a procedure be feasible in her work, the rabbi asked Medina, who responded that it clearly would not.
Offering the example of fist fighting, which is accepted in the culture of professional ice hockey games but might warrant an arrest on a public street, Rabbi Kanefsky posed a question to the students. Is it possible that the halachic standards for dealing with a miscreant through a newspaper article might be very different than the way one would deal with him privately? The students seemed to agree.
When the rabbi brought up my reporting on the Rabbi Baruch Lanner abuse case, I told the group that I had consulted a posek (rabbinic authority) before publishing the piece. After the session, several students asked me what I would have done if the posek had urged me not to publish the story.
Good question. I told them it would have put me in a difficult place, caught between religious and professional standards and obligations. But after hearing Rabbi Kanefsky’s presentation, I came away feeling at least one rabbi would have been in my corner in suggesting it’s the rabbinic approach, more than the journalists’, that needs to be reassessed.
At the Friday night meal, I spoke to the students about some of the challenges the editor of a Jewish community newspaper faces, and asked them for examples of some issues they grappled with. Several were about whether or not to name someone in a story — a student who accidentally injured the principal while holding a trophy aloft at a school pep rally, or an alum serving in the IDF who had suffered from serious sunstroke.
I suggested that there are no hard-and-fast rules on such judgment calls, and noted that we all face pressures not to publish certain stories, whether we’re The New York Times or The Jewish Week or the high school newspaper.
In the end, thanks to Keene’s efforts and the students’ enthusiasm, I think we all came away encouraged, feeling the conference had been a promising first step in creating and building a network of high school students with an interest in exploring journalism through the Jewish lens. May it flourish and expand.