Thinking about Jewish journalism’s delicate balance

Thinking about Jewish journalism’s delicate balance

Forward editor-in-chief Jodi Rudoren will discuss polarization, tradition, and habit in Livingston

Jodi Rudoren is the editor-in-chief of the Forward.
Jodi Rudoren is the editor-in-chief of the Forward.

Before Jodi Rudoren of Montclair picked up the phone, I didn’t know what to expect.

I assumed that she’d be smart and interesting. She is, among many other impressive things, the editor-in-chief of the Forward, a former Jerusalem and Midwest bureau chief for the New York Times, and the paper of record’s former associate managing editor for audience strategy.

But I didn’t assume warm and open; cold and intimidating seemed far more likely until the second she picked up the phone.

This is relevant because one of the things Ms. Rudoren mentioned — one of the subjects she’s likely although not guaranteed to talk about on Sunday at Temple B’nai Abraham in Livingston (see box) — is the human tendency to make assumptions, and how misguided that can be.

But although assumption-making might be human, it also can be dangerous, she said; if we continue to make assumptions about each other, we never actually will listen to each other, much less understand each other. And as vitally important as it is for everyone to remember that truth, it’s existentially important for journalists.

“Our industry” — that’s journalism — “and our community” — that’s specifically although not exclusively the Jewish community — “are in a moment of true crisis,” Ms. Rudoren said. “There is not one Jewish community, but there are overlapping ones. As a Jewish community, we are in this moment of polarization, not uniquely but distinctly. Our country, and probably the whole world, is in this crisis of polarization to the point of real division because of our real inability to talk to each other, because of our real dehumanization of each other.

“I totally believe, with every part of my being, that the opposite of that polarization is critical to democracy, and critical to Jewish communal survival. And an independent media that creates a shared platform for civil discourse on the things that divide us is integral to the functioning of a vibrant, dynamic society.”

Well okay then. How do we get to that shared platform?

“From a place of empathetic inquiry,” Ms. Rudoren said. “There are two parts to that. One is reporting. We need journalists who will go out and find out what’s going on and explain it without having any agenda.” In other words, we need more stories from the finding-a-diner-in-the-heartland-and-talking-to-the-salt-of-the-earth-people-there genre, as challenging as those stories might be to write originally instead of generically.

“And the other part of it to be honestly, truly interested in why and how people think differently from the way I do,” she continued. “I have to engage with them; I have to understand their perspective, and then I can have true discourse and debate and argument about it.” Journalists cannot patronize. They cannot report and write facile stories. Their understanding has to be real.

Luckily, she said, Jews are good at discourse and debate and argument. “That’s great for me, coming to Jewish journalism,” a move that she made in 2019. Those kinds of debates are the essence of Talmud study; “those are places where Judaism and journalism have the same values,” she said.

The idea that we all live in our own bubbles is not new, she said. She’s often asked if “social media is to blame — and clearly social media absolutely has made this worse, but it’s a chicken-and-egg thing. And it’s not as if there’s an option not to have social media now. So yes, social media and the filtered bubbles we live in are part of the problem, but so is our political geography. We live mostly near people who think like us, and that affects the schools too. The hegemony of thinking in a school or a synagogue really is problematic.

“I love where I live, but something I hate about where I live is that all my friends assume that they know what I think, and they are totally wrong. I do not actually think that Republicans are bad people. I don’t think that people who own guns are bad.

“In fact, I don’t think about anything as good or bad, but as curious or interesting.” That dispassion is necessarily for journalists.

The pandemic hasn’t helped with black-and-white thinking because it makes accidental encounters difficult; there’s basically no chance of sitting next to someone anywhere — maybe at shul — who thinks differently. There’s no chance of sitting next to anyone, period. “In the Zoom era, everyone has been more isolated,” Ms. Rudoren said.

“The society that I want to live in — and the thing that I am trying to reflect in our pages — is that when you encounter someone and you think that you cannot imagine how anyone could think or act that way, instead of thinking that person must be crazy or evil or bad, you would think I want to understand. You would start with the presumption that the other person is smart and thoughtful and just like you in many ways. Everyone wants enough food to eat. Everyone wants their kids to be happy. If we share those core values, how do you come to such a different conclusion than I do? I want to understand it. I might even end up feeling differently.

“Maybe it’s not what’s wrong with you, but what’s wrong with me. And maybe it’s that there’s nothing wrong with either of us. I want to live in a society where diversity of thought is valued; and that is literally the foundational principle of our country, and in some ways the foundational principle of Judaism.”

It’s Hillel and Shammai, Ms. Rudoren said; two men, leaders of two schools of thought, who always disagree. “One of my favorite Jewish things is Shammai,” who always disagreed with Hillel, always was more stringent, always lost, and always kept going. “And Ruth Bader Ginsburg; her legacy is mostly about dissent, as the Talmud is about dissent, about how the most important thing is the debate.”

Storytelling is another deeply Jewish way to order the world. “I spent 30 years of my life as a reporter, not working on the opinion side,” Ms. Rudoren said. Traditionally, news organizations put up nearly unscalable walls between opinion and reporting (and even more formidable ones between those two disciplines and advertising). “I definitely believe that reported storytelling is a better way toward respectful engagement and understanding than formal argument,” she said. “We need that argument in the opinion space, but I think that storytelling — going out, finding the story, and telling it as a story — is very important. And very Jewish.

“It’s a way of seeking to understand the meaning of a story — what is the motivation? What is the context? What do we know? What do we need to know? Those questions are fundamental to both Judaism and journalism.

“Judaism is not usually taught or practiced by saying ‘This is how it is.’ It’s about wrestling with the text, about figuring out how it’s relevant to our lives now, about how it should change and how it should stay the same.”

And that question, often posed as some way or other of examining the relationship of tradition to change, can be seen as tradition versus habit, Ms. Rudoren said; and that relationship can be rephrased as halacha versus minhag. Law versus custom. The way something must be done versus the way we’ve always done it. (And even then, we can get sidetracked by trying to define the word “always.”)

She tied that concept, on a practical level, to the work she did at the Times, starting in 2016, “looking at what the newsroom of the future should look like.” The Forward, which began in 1897 as a Yiddish-language daily newspaper — probably the kind of newspaper whose eager readers ended up with ink all over their fingers — is now entirely online. Stories now can take the number of words that it takes to tell them, rather than the number that can be crammed or expanded to fill the available space, and they can be crafted to flow properly rather than to trail off to leave their last paragraphs expendable should the space end up smaller than promised. Now, stories have to work not on a page but on a phone.

“Once you are clear on the tradition, you can be wide open on the habit,” Ms. Rudoren said. Once you have committed to keep the halacha — no matter how you define it — then you can experiment with the minhag. “Shabbat is distinct from the rest of the week,” Ms. Rudoren said. “What it means to you after that, I don’t care.”

Who: Jodi Rudoren, editor-in-chief of the Forward

What: Will talk about “From the New York Times to the Forward: Practicing Journalism in a Polarized World.”

When: On Sunday, December 12, at 3:30 p.m.

Where: At Temple B’nai Abraham in Livingston, in person, and on Zoom

Why: As part of the synagogue’s “Sunday Afternoons With…” series

How much: It’s free

To register: Go to the synagogue’s website,, and follow the Learn link on top to adult learning to “Sunday Afternoons With…”, or call (973) 994-2290

And also: To go in person, you must show a vaccination card or proof that you’ve gotten negative PCR results with 72 hours; everyone must wear a mask.

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