Where is the accountability for deleting faces of the Holocaust?

Last night, after receiving multiple emails and phone calls outraged over the pixelation of female Holocaust victims in a Mishpacha Magazine article, Sruli Besser (a Contributing Editor at Mishpacha Magazine), took to Facebook to justify Mishpacha’s actions. He blamed the Hebrew Edition of Mishpacha Magazine, and an individual female graphic artist who inserted the already pixelated image, assuming that was the way the English version of the magazine wanted it too.

And why wouldn’t she assume that? After all didn’t Mishpacha Magazine’s news editor Binyamin Rose, in a 2015 Haaretz interview say – 

“This is how we avoid the objectification of women,” Rose answers to me in an earlier meeting. “Our policy is that we do not alter pictures as they are. If there is a woman in a photograph, we’ll simply use another picture.”

“I can only put it like this,” he says. “Based on community standards, there are constraints for our work.”

“Mishpacha isn’t going to be the first to introduce women into the magazine. If the standards were to change, it’s a subject that can be reconsidered. But I don’t like to make predictions. Today, a significant readership would object to images of women – we won’t break ranks with them.”

Obviously, Mishpacha has now started violating the policy of not altering pictures as they are. Since they changed that standard, perhaps they can change the standard of not using women’s photos too?

In terms of Besser’s response, throwing a female artist under the bus is a brilliant deflection.  First of all, it let’s all of us angry women know that it wasn’t a man who included the pixelation, but one of our own. Second of all, it gives the illusion that if a senior member of the editorial staff had seen the photo, Mishpacha wouldn’t have pixelated it. We can see by Binyamin Rose’s own words that if an editor higher up than the graphic designer had “caught” the pixelated photo before publication, in the past they wouldn’t have included it at all. However, now that Mishpacha’s policy does allow for altering photos, the same decision would have been made to publish it that way!

The only thing that is sure to change now, is that when Mishpacha searches for Holocaust photos to publish, the English version will make sure not to use a photo with women in it.  They will make sure not to pixelate female Holocaust victims by not including them at all, giving future generations the impression that the Holocaust was something that only happened to men, while the women remained safe at home. As far as pixelating photos of women in general? It seems the Hebrew version will continue to do so, but maybe the English version will be wary now.

Mishpacha is running out of people to blame for their no women’s images policy. Now they are turning against the Hebrew version of their own publication and trying to separate themselves from it. At the end of the day, it’s the English version’s decision and choice to exlude or pixelate women’s faces from their magazine! No one else’s.

Mishpacha is working hard to craft a policy acceptable to halacha? What halacha states that a woman’s face cannot be seen in a photograph? Now this trend is halacha? And who are these readers who feel uncomfortable and disrespected by seeing a tznius woman’s picture? The only people being disrespected here are the female readers. Is Besser referring to the possibility that Mishpacha will disrespect male readers by showing women’s photos? Disrespect its advertisers who wish to live in a female free society? Who is the magazine worried about disrespecting, because its doing a lousy job of not doing so.

Maybe it’s time to consider some of the players financially enabling Mishpacha to run its magazine this way, and perhaps even encouraging them to – their advertisers.

This is only a sampling of the advertisers that pay Mishpacha to showcase their products in its pages, emails, and online. Supposedly Mishpacha is afraid of losing their dollars were they to publish women’s photos. Is this true, or are these companies simply another entity for them to blame for their own home grown editorial policy? Maybe its time to ask these brands?


Bring Back Irene!

Mishpacha Magazine has chosen to show only one twin in their story about a pair of “Mengele twins,” Irene Hizme and her brother Rene Slotkin, who survived the holocaust. They pixelated Irene as well as other female holocaust victims. Women who want to put frum women back in the media are exhorting the community to #bringbackIrene so that her story and memory don’t disappear.

In 2013, a haredi publication called BaKehillah caused outrage when it censored an iconic photo prominently featuring women and children being rounded up during the liquidation of the Warsaw Ghetto.Mishpacha Magazine’s censoring of Irene Hizme is the very definition of scope creep. Their censorship of Irene’s images is why we should care how women are being treated in every corner of Judaism.

Only five years ago BaKehillah made news because of their extreme censorship, but no one truly cared other than momentary outrage or ridicule because they represented a small and extreme element of the orthodox Jewish population. Mishpacha Magazine doesn’t. While Mishpacha’s subscriber base might be mostly “Haredi-Lite” or “Yeshivish,” it certainly doesn’t appeal to an extreme element of orthodox society.

Many members of Mishpacha’s readership are college educated professional women who are raising Jewish families, and finding a balance between HaOlam Hazeh and HaOlam HaBa.

We now stand at the precipice. Where will we be in another five years? Will women like Irene even be mentioned, much less photographed?What kind of Jewish world do we want to live in? It’s up to us to #bringbackIrene.

Is Silence Enough?

Both the RCA (in a Facebook post) and the OU (in an email shared to a Facebook group by its recipient) have shared their opinions that their actions speak louder than words. Because these rabbinic organizations do not engage in the practice of excluding women’s images from their publications, dayenu.

When I think about other forms of abuse, and yes, attempting to eliminate 50% of the population from the public sphere is abuse, is it enough to stay silent? Even if I myself am not an abuser, does that absolve me from speaking up when I know that others are being harmed?

The Jewish community often cites this poignant quote from Protestant pastor Martin Niemoller, an outspoken activist against Hitler who spent seven years in a Nazi concentration camp –

First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—

Because I was not a Socialist.

Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—

Because I was not a Trade Unionist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—

Because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.”

Kowtowing to extremists never ends well. Although remaining silent and uncritical might seem like the more diplomatic solution – as long as we aren’t part of their group or one of their targets, let them continue their madness until the movement fizzles itself out – this is a naive belief. The other naive belief is that because we, as Jews, have historically been victimized, we can never be the victimizers. It’s all well and good to read Pastor Niemoller’s words while nodding out heads and saying, “Yes! You didn’t speak up for us and in the end they came for you too!” However, are we capable of taking his lesson further to understand that we are also included in his admonition to speak up for others who have no voice – yes, even victims are responsible to speak up for their fellow humans wherever possible.

Wasn’t it only just over a year ago that the Israeli Chief Rabbinate put out a “blacklist” that rejected the conversions of foreign liberal rabbis – 77 of them from the United States, with 40% of that number being RCA members? Were there a few rabbis excluded because of individual scandal associated with them, yes. However, it was disturbing to see a possible push by the haredi Israeli Chief Rabbinate to discredit American modern orthodox rabbinic leaders. Point being, the move from the right to exclude and erase won’t end with women.

Silence on the part of witnesses is an essential element needed for criminals to get away with their crimes. Secrecy is another essential element. Harboring fugitives to help them evade confrontation and punishment also makes one culpable in their crimes. Both the RCA and OU have historically been proud “old boy networks.” Oh to be a fly on the wall of some their formal and informal meetings where the men can speak freely.

Unlike us women, I have no doubt that the members of these organizations know exactly who is behind the movement to erase women. There are probably a few proponents within the ranks of the RCA and OU themselves who support and encourage such an attitude. However, their names will never be given up – members will continue to close ranks and remain silent in support of their right wing comrades – even if they personally disagree.

Silence equals acquiescence. It means that while you wouldn’t do a certain thing yourself, you are willing to stand by and let someone else do it. It means that you have absolved yourself of responsibility toward your fellow Jew.

They have taken our voices, now they have taken our faces. Ladies, there are no knights in shining armor coming to save us. The time has come for us to save ourselves.

Help Solve The 31 Year Old Murder Mystery of Chaim Weiss

This isn’t my normal type of post, and since I rarely update this blog anymore it’s a shot in the dark that someone with information will see it, but just in case, I feel compelled to reach out to anyone who might ease the pain of the family of Chaim Weiss, a Long Island Yeshiva student who was murdered in the school’s dormitory in the early morning hours of November 1, 1986 by helping to find his killer. Anyone having any information about the case should contact a special hotline set up by the Nassau County Police at 1-800-244-TIPS.

This article describes the case and includes a video (linked below) 

This is a video from Unsolved Mysteries that goes into greater detail about the case –

Here is an October 4, 2017 podcast about Chaim’s case on Robin Warder’s “The Trail Went Cold.

After listening and reading about Chaim’s case, I can’t help but hear so many details taken as fact that don’t make sense to me.  Without the benefit of more information other than what’s been published in the media, this is my armchair detective take on things as they stand – which could be completely wrong – but I wonder if anyone else reading this from the perspective of the orthodox Jewish world noticed these things too.  I am also going to add in a detail that goes against what has been reported in the press thus far.

There are a lot of strange bits of information in the case.

For example, the memorial candles lit in Chaim’s dorm room for the shiva period. First of all, only immediate family members sit shiva for a departed loved one (these would be Chaim’s parents and siblings), and they are the ones to light the memorial candle (they have large 7 day candles for this purpose, so you don’t usually keep lighting individual candles). Second of all, you wouldn’t light such a candle at the place of the departed’s death (like Chaim’s room), but rather, most likely in the family home where you are sitting shiva (in a place safe for lighting candles and perhaps on a nice tray and a place of visual prominence).

The second off detail is how much of a prominent role the idea that Jews are targeted for violence on Halloween plays in the push to consider that the killer was a random non Jewish stranger. This is a common paranoia in more insular orthodox Jewish communities, because historically, there were times when Jews were harmed on Halloween. However, in 20th and 21st century America, almost no one else outside of the orthodox Jewish community would associate Halloween as a “kill the Jews” day.

Generally speaking, I don’t believe that in America, there is a great uptick in violent crime against Jews during this largely “dress up in costumes, watch scary movies, and eat lots of candy” cultural version of Halloween as it is celebrated today. I can’t say if a Yeshiva, with its group of boys, might attract other groups of non Jewish boys for general mischief like egg tossing, but certainly, I can’t recall any murders or mayhem happening specifically to Jews on Halloween in recent times in America. My son went to an out of town dorm Yeshiva and so did my husband and they didn’t experience crime or harassment specifically on Halloween. Maybe they got lucky.

My point is, only someone with a firm belief that it’s widely accepted that Jews are targeted for violence on Halloween would feel that police would also think it a reasonable motive for a non Jew to murder a random Jew on that day. To anyone outside the enclave, that theory seems pretty far fetched and without recent precedent. Which is why I personally think this was an inside job perpetrated by someone in the community.

The third inconsistency I see is the widely reported detail that Chaim was one of only two students with his own room. This is the part of the story where I have heard the opposite of what has been reported. I mentioned my husband went to a dorm Yeshiva. In 1986, my husband was in a Yeshiva in Baltimore. Shortly after Chaim Weiss’ murder, one of Chaim’s classmates joined my husband’s Yeshiva. Not just any classmate, but Chaim’s roommate.

He told the boys that he had been spending that Shabbos at home when Chaim was murdered. His parents were so freaked out by the situation that they never sent him back to the Long Island Yeshiva and transferred him to Baltimore.

Now keep in mind that at that time in 1986, Chaim’s murder had a huge impact on the orthodox community all over America – especially in the Yeshiva world. It was all anyone talked about. So, it is possible, that a newly transferred high school student, anxious for friends, attention and clout, might exaggerate his level of involvement with the victim. Certainly, roommate or not, I can see why his parents would have panicked and removed him from the school. However, if he really was the victim’s roommate, how might that change things? Why would the school have told police that he had his own room?

Certainly, if this was a premeditated murder, waiting until Halloween might seem like a good night to claim that an antisemitic stranger bent on murder randomly struck down Chaim. But maybe the Halloween part was incidental and the murderer picked a night when the roommate would be gone and surely wouldn’t return until after Sabbath? Of course, there is always the possibility that this roommate had something to do with Chaim’s demise and the school covered it up and allowed his parents to shuffle him to another Yeshiva (this theory seems unlikely, as my husband didn’t say this kid was a troublemaker or behaved strangely in any way).

The other odd mention was that there was no dorm counselor present during the night – dorm counselors are usually younger unmarried guys (early 20s) and there have been unofficial (read unreported) cases of abuse between dorm counselors and students in the past. Where was the dorm counselor that night? He wasn’t around during the night to detect an intruder or hear the sounds of murder and the subsequent movement of the body and cleanup, but he was around the next morning to find his body and tell everyone to get out of the building?

Which bring me to what I see as the smoking gun that the murderer was a staff member – Chaim’s hysterical crying phone call from camp during the summer before school started, asking his father to bring him home. As with the murky accusations about abuses in dormitories, there have likewise been reports (both official and unofficial) of kids being abused in Jewish camps by staff. Most cases are never reported much less convicted. We can thank the internet for bringing attention to such accusations, but of course, you can only believe what you hear about on the internet so much. However, in terms of opportunity, it is so much easier to abuse a child in a mountain camp in the outdoors – no parents, much less supervision than in a school setting, and many more places to go to commit the crime unseen.

Apparently there are online sleuths who feel that Chaim was likely abused at the school or camp (it was mentioned that this was a camp run by his school with the same staff as during the school year), and by the time his father came to the camp a week later, after returning from Florida, the staff and/or possibly the perpetrator had already convinced Chaim not to tell. The fact that the yeshiva’s principal was so anxious/nervous to speak to Chaim after camp ended (probably to make sure he didn’t talk outside of the influence of himself or other staff), and also convinced Chaim not to reveal the contents of their conversation to his father, is all the more suspicious. An odd detail reported in a 1986 New York Times article on events that happened at the school shortly before Chaim’s murder –

Also, last summer, a mattress was found burning at one of the yeshiva dorms, according to Rabbi Chaim Wakslak, a local Orthodox leader.

My opinion is that Chaim’s murder was an inside job, but none of the people involved, nor those close to them, will talk. It’s not because they have a moral obligation not to accuse someone unless they are certain, which is what potential witnesses have told media and authorities. It’s because they have a moral obligation not to be an informant against another Jew to secular authorities. This is misguided, as respected rabbis have rules that in cases of abuse (how much more so murder) a Jew is required to go to authorities. But many religious Jews still feel that reporting a Jew to non Jewish authorities is still worse than whatever crime the Jew committed. Of course, the actual murderer(s) exploit this belief because it’s to their advantage not to be turned into the authorities.

These are just my theories and opinions based on what I’ve heard and read about the case. I came across another article that discusses a taunting letter sent to Chaim’s family eight years after his death in 1994. One commenter on that article said the Yeshiva had suggested that the school’s Polish janitor committed the murder and then fled back to Poland, sending the taunting letter years later. This version could be true, or the letter could be a plant by the true killer trying yet again to put forward a theory of an outsider (non Jew) as the murderer who conveniently skipped the country and couldn’t be questioned. Was there even actually a Polish janitor?

I would be interested to hear your perspectives and who you think might have committed this atrocity. Chaim’s family is in agony even to this day. His parents are getting older, and it would be a terrible thing for them to leave this world without ever knowing who killed their son and to know that they will never get justice unless the murderer is found.

Again, the hotline is Nassau County Police at 1-800-244-TIPS

Facebook Pulled The Rug From Under The JBlogosphere

Remember when you gave up reading Failed Messiah for Aseret Yemei Teshuva? It’s author, Shmarya Rosenberg, was but one of many town criers exposing the underbelly of the orthodox Jewish world. Rosenberg and naysayers like him have largely gone silent.

Is this because many of the societal issues that took place during the JBlogging heyday of 2000-2010 have been resolved? Has day school tuition dramatically lowered? Has the stigma surrounding mental health gone away? Has sex abuse been eliminated? Have we discovered a compassionate approach towards LGBTQ Jews? Have people stopped committing fraud and other white collar crimes? Have things simply  gotten better over the past several years?

If not, maybe the jaded bloggers who attracted hundreds of followers have all become baalei teshuvas? Maybe they turned over a new leaf and either see things in a different way or now agree with sweeping things under the communal rug? 

Maybe many of them decided to leave the community and its angst behind, going frei, so to speak?

I would argue that the miles of comments containing passionate debates and discussions on the blogs of yore have been replaced by Facebook – but Facebook threads can never hope to replace the raw honesty that happened when people were able to comment anonymously on blog posts. This is because on Facebook you can’t hide.  

Sure, there are folks who try to get away with fake Facebook profiles.  While they might last for awhile, if they get too intense or insulting towards those Orthodox Jews who love debating with frum critics, their profile will get flagged and deleted.  Long term fake profiles only work if the person behind it lays low and mainly observes.

On Facebook, you have to stand behind what you say – with your own name, and with your own face. That can inhibit discussion and critique when you are part of a world with only two or three degrees of separation between you and everyone else. The only town criers left seem to be those who are no longer part of the community, on the edge of it and don’t care who knows it, or the truly courageous among us.

Facebook not only caused the downfall of the JBlogosphere network, but also took away the anonymous platform that critics within the community used to have. These pseudonymed critics often had the valuable vantage point of a current insider’s perspective, rather than the perspective of those outside of the system or those who made their exit many years before. Shmarya Rosenberg wasn’t anonymous, so people knew how to get to him. The buzz online was that he was paid to stop blogging about the ills of Orthodoxy.

Many would say that the abolishment of the “Failed Messiahs” is a good thing. What do you think?