The Newark-based Star-Ledger – New Jersey’s largest daily newspaper, according to figures compiled by the New Jersey Press Association – has done away with the term “ultra Orthodox” in reference to religious Jews. Jewish newspapers have struggled with the phrase for years, and now the battle to describe the fervently Orthodox has entered the mainstream media.
The term is divisive, said Stephen Schwartz, a Clifton lawyer who began e-mailing the paper when articles appeared after November’s Mumbai terrorist attacks describing the Chabad victims as “ultra-Orthodox.”
“The term ‘ultra-Orthodox’ is implying that the person the label is applied to is fanatical or extreme,” Schwartz told The Jewish Standard during a phone interview earlier this month. “The term ‘ultra’ denotes those things. I don’t think it’s a benign term at all.”
In addition, “ultra-Orthodox” is an inaccurate description of people, said Schwartz, who heads the law firm Stephen E. Schwartz Esq. LLC in Clifton.
“If I’m Orthodox, why is somebody an ‘ultra’ version of me?” he said. “How do you calculate that? At what point does it cross over and go to being ‘ultra’ or ‘extra’ or ‘special’?”
The reporter Schwartz wrote to spoke with the religion editor, who consulted the copy editor, arbiter of the newspaper’s style. The Star-Ledger removed the term from its stylebook on Dec. 16, said copy editor Joel Pisetzner, who made the decision.
His memo to the newspaper’s staff, sent out that day, said that the term “ultra-Orthodox” “has met some resistance from members who fear it will brand them as a cult.”
According to the memo, the new style is to write “a sect of Orthodox Judaism” or “an Orthodox sect.”
“I have found there’s no such thing as a style ruling that satisfies everyone,” Pisetzner said in an e-mail to the Standard last week. “All I can do is reach a measured decision I hope is reasonable, clear it with the managing editor, then issue it.”
Demonstrating his point, Pisetzner wrote that he consulted a Reform rabbi in southern New Jersey who had no grievance with the term.
Pisetzner declined further comment on the issue. E-mails asking for clarification on whether the change would apply to all chasidim or just to Chabad were not answered. Pisetzner’s memo seemingly singles out Chabad.
“To many mainstream Jews, Lubavitchers are a cult, but to lesson the chance of offending its members, we can describe them a bit more carefully,” according to the memo.
Within Chabad, the change has received mixed reactions.
“It’s a very good thing,” said Rabbi Ephraim Simon, director of Friends of Lubavitch of Bergen County in Teaneck. “The term ‘ultra-Orthodox’ is only meant to separate and divide. The reality is that every term of how Jews are defined – Orthodox, Conservative, Reform – all those labels serve to divide one Jew from another.”
Members of the group who have taken issue with the new terminology point to the stylebook of the Religion Newswriters Association, which defines a sect as “a group that has broken off from another.” The term carries “negative connotations” according to RNA, which advises writers to avoid the label unless absolutely certain it is appropriate.
“I’m most gratified that a stalwart institution of journalism like the Star-Ledger is engaged in this healthy discussion,” said Chabad.org’s Rabbi Motti Seligson. He added that he trusts “upon further deliberation, editors and reporters at the Ledger will come to the same conclusion as peers of theirs have, that, regardless of its technical definition in some dictionaries, ‘sect’ is a derogatory term that should not be used to describe Jews practicing traditionally the world’s oldest religion.”
As Pisetzner said, not everybody agrees with the change. Rabbi Shammai Engelmayer, spiritual leader of Temple Israel Community Center in Cliffside Park, a columnist for this newspaper and a former executive editor of The Jewish Week in New York, thinks the Star-Ledger made the wrong decision. The problem, he wrote in an e-mail to the Standard, is that Orthodoxy is not a defined stream of Judaism like Conservative or Reform Judaism.
“‘Orthodox’ is an umbrella term that designates a very widely disparate group of people very loosely tied together by some core beliefs,” he said. “Beyond that, the multifarious nature of Orthodox Judaism makes it impossible to lump everyone together under the same roof.”
Engelmayer confronted the issue during the late 1980s at The Jewish Week. The paper came up with several other terms to use in place of “ultra-Orthodox,” but none satisfied readers. While it may not accurately describe everybody within that category, said Engelmayer, he believes “ultra-Orthodox” remains the best catchall term.
“Doing away with a term that describes rigid observance does a disservice to those ‘Orthodox’ who are more moderate,” he wrote. “Using a term such as ‘ultra-Orthodox’ that appears to classify people as outside the norm does a disservice to them. It is a conundrum.”
A decade later, JTA faced the same conundrum and decided to do away with the term, replacing it with “fervently Orthodox.” Lisa Hostein, JTA’s editor during the 1990s and now editor of the Jewish Exponent in Philadelphia, agreed with Schwartz that “ultra-Orthodox” was seen as a derogatory term that suggested extremism. “Fervently Orthodox” didn’t satisfy all of JTA’s editors or readers, but it was a better term in general, she said.
“When you describe somebody as fervent, I don’t think there’s the same negative connotation,” she said during a phone interview on Monday. “It kind of implies a strong commitment or passionate commitment. That’s not to say modern Orthodox or even Conservative Jews don’t have [a passionate commitment].”
Haredi is the general term for ultra-Orthodox in Israel and, Hostein said, is also an acceptable term. However, the problem with “haredi” is one of translation and familiarity with the term’s meaning. Often, JTA would use “haredi” on first reference and “fervently Orthodox” subsequently.
Schwartz has been in touch with copy editors at other regional newspapers, but ideally, he said, he’d like the Associated Press to do away with “ultra Orthodox” so the change would then funnel down to a majority of the country’s news organizations.
“My goal is to eliminate the term in this country,” he said.