Modern Orthodox Publications and Haredi Advertisers – Between A Rock and a Hard Place

The latest uproar in the saga of Women vs. Orthodox Jewish Media is taking place in the Modern Orthodox publication the North Jersey Jewish Link. The NJ Jewish Link serves a large and thriving Modern Orthodox community and has always featured photos of women and girls in its publication. In it’s current issue, however, it allowed a travel company to place an advertisement for a Pesach getaway that showed full colored photographs of all of the male speakers and entertainers, but showed a witness protection outline of the one female speaker, Lori Palatnik (a very popular international speaker, writer, and educator who is regularly featured on television, radio, and Youtube videos).

While there are people who are saying, blame the advertiser not the publication, the publication allowed such an advertisement to be printed. Modern Orthodox publications have the right to set advertising guidelines, just as the Haredi publications do. It is up to the Modern Orthodox media to take a stand against this type of discrimination and not give it a platform – even if it means losing advertising dollars! For a long time now, many savvy companies wanting to advertise in Orthodox Jewish media have been making two copies of advertisements, one copy including women and another copy not including women, so that they can advertise in all of the different Jewish publications. Of course, that costs extra money and time. Now, they have been given the green light to only make advertisements without women’s images, which will be sufficient for use in both Modern Orthodox and Haredi publications everywhere. This makes it cheaper and more efficient to erase women!

WARNING – SCOPE CREEP SIGHTING AHEAD!

Advertisers in Modern Orthodox Jewish publications need to be told that they can’t place ads that alter women’s images, use outlines/cartoons/objects/babies/children to represent them, or leave out their photos where their male peers’ photos are used! The NJ Jewish Link and all other Modern Orthodox publications need to create an equal policy for how men and women are represented, even in their advertisements.  If they can’t survive without the money from Haredi advertisers, then they need to insist that men be given the same treatment in the ads. They will not run copy with women blurred out, made into a cartoon, a child,  profiled in silhouette, or an outline – unless the men receive the same treatment. Blur out everyone or blur out no one. Exclude all human photos or exclude no one.

Here’s the problem – publications feel like they are between a rock and a hard place. If they push back on the kind of content advertisers can submit, they risk losing those precious dollars, plus angering those with extra “sensitivities” regarding women’s photos for being anti-Haredi. If they publish advertisements like the one above, they risk angering their readership – the very audience their publications are meant to serve.

However, women against erasing women face a similar quandry. For example, Mishpacha Magazine’s news editor Binyamin Rose, in a 2015 Haaretz interview said – 

“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.”

If you look at the Haredi press, the preponderance of their articles and event coverage focuses on men. If you can’t use pictures of women, and pictures are an important method of enhancing the impact of an article, it makes sense to avoid the problem all together by not writing about women – either as individuals, groups, or any entity that they are largely involved in. It’s simply easier to exclude women altogether than worry about what accompanying graphic to use alongside an article – especially when women are so touchy these days about having their pictures pixelized or being represented by a bunch of flowers! So making a stink gets women excluded and erased even more.

In the case of the Pesach program above – there is only one woman out of nine presenters – and that is a coup in and of itself! I haven’t done any research, and I’m certainly not a regular Pesach getaway vacationer, but most of the program flyers I’ve seen either don’t have women speakers at all, or maybe only one, such as the program advertised in the NJ Jewish Link.

There was a fascinating Time magazine article this January called, How Diversity Training Infuriates Men and Fails Women. The article talks about how when men feel like they are being scolded or being called racist or sexist, any prejudices they do harbor actually increase and they end up feeling like a victim of unfair judgement. Not only does this type of training not help to reverse discrimination by men in power, it actually perpetuates and reinforces it. For example:

“Perhaps more to the point is the fact that the training infuriates the people it’s intended to educate: white men. “Many interpreted the key learning point as having to walk on eggshells around women and minorities–choosing words carefully so as not to offend. Some surmised that it meant white men were villains, still others assumed that they would lose their jobs to minorities and women, while others concluded that women and minorities were simply too sensitive,” executives Rohini Anand and Mary-Frances Winters noted in a 2008 analysis of diversity training in the Academy of Management Learning & Education.

Training done badly can also damage otherwise cordial relationships. Women and minorities often leave training sessions thinking their co-workers must be even more biased than they had previously imagined. In a more troubling development, it turns out that telling people about others’ biases can actually heighten their own. Researchers have found that when people believe everybody else is biased, they feel free to be prejudiced themselves. In one study, a group of managers was told that stereotypes are rare, while another group was told that stereotypes are common. Then both groups were asked to evaluate male and female job candidates. The managers who were told that stereotypes are common were more biased against the women. In a similar study, managers didn’t want to hire women and found them unlikable.”

So here is yet another rub – people make a stink about a female speaker being represented in a disrespectful or undignified way in the event ad, and what is the most likely outcome? Next year they won’t include a woman in the program. Complaining often does more harm than good. However, not complaining lets the issue progress to the point where even Modern Orthodox publications are including offensive images meant to erase women. People who care about this issue are between a rock and a hard place.

There is a growing contingency of women and men, both Modern Orthodox and Haredi, who are getting fed up. They are tired of playing nice and being told to be patient and respect the process, when nothing changes; when the people who created the process and can also reverse it, act like their hands are tied; when the people who made the policy remain just as hidden as the women in their publications – and they like it that way. Being the publisher of a newspaper or magazine comes with a social responsibilty. If the publisher and advertisers have one agenda, and their readership has another, something’s got to give. The time is ripe for some new players in the Orthodox Jewish Media. Sometimes some good old fashioned competition is the thing that helps “speed the process along” where asking nicely and being patient won’t.

Update – the North Jersey Jewish Link has promised to publish the alternate version of the same Pesach vacation ad that includes Lori Palatnik’s photos. Apparently, as is the norm, the advertiser made two copies, and the wrong version was included. Maybe an accident, maybe testing the waters? Time will tell, but at least the NJ Jewish Link is being responsive.

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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.

Hair Today, Gone Tomorrow?

Orthodox day school kids are currently undergoing a back-to-school ritual common across across all hashkafot – lice check. Nothing freaks us out more than the thought of our kids being exposed to nits and lice – and nothing helps nits and lice spread like wildfire than having a bunch of infested kids in close quarters bumping heads in crowded classrooms. Hence the regulatory hair check before being admitted to school in the fall.

Apparently, there is at least one girls’ school in Lakewood that is killing two birds with one stone when it comes to lice check. As long as they are checking hair anyway, lice check is also the perfect opportunity to enforce a mandatory hair length requirement. 

In a letter to the parent body, this school stated that in order to be admitted to this school, hair length may not exceed four inches past the collarbone, irrespective of how it is worn (loose or in a pony). One has to wonder what would happen if a girl came with hair that was too long? Would she and her mother be publicly called out and sent away, chastised and ashamed, for a haircut? 

First they went for the moms’ wigs, now they’ve gone after the daughters’ hair. That’s right, yet another new and arbitrary tznius rule is being imposed, this time directed at young girls.

Every new rule regarding tznius always has wider implications – simply because it’s an area where every school has to keep up with the Joneses. If a competing school doesn’t have this hair rule, now it will be seen as the “less frum” option. You can bet that next year a letter stating a similar requirement about hair length will go out to its own parent body. This standard will then slowly trickle down until it reaches schools that aren’t bais yaakov institutions and aren’t even made up of yeshivish families. Is this new rule merely yet another means of exclusion and exclusivity disguised as frumkeit?

Some people are saying that this is an example of the community’s enforced lack of autonomy and over- sexualization of minor girls that is causing young women to go off the derech. When girls have no means of creative expression over their appearance (nail polish, jewelry, hair styles, hair length, clothing), sometimes it causes them to act out in more serious ways. Don’t sweat the small stuff and give them some wiggle room to rebel over the insignificant things. There may come a time when hair length is the least of the worries.

The Jewish Observer – Ahead of Its Time

I recently reread a 2015 Haaretz article by Avital Chizhik-Goldschmidt entitled, Inside the World of ultra-Orthodox Media: Haredi Journalists Tell It Like It Is that had an interesting interview with Mishpacha magazine’s news editor Binyamin Rose. In the article, Rose justified the exclusion of women’s images in his magazine by saying – 

“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.”

The good news is that Mishpacha doesn’t have to be the first to introduce women into Orthodox magazines – there has already been a trailblazer in this arena – The Jewish Observer, an Orthodox magazine published by Agudath Israel of America from 1963-2009. Since The Jewish Observer already set this precedent, maybe it will be easier for magazines such as Mishpacha to reverse their policy about including women’s photos in their publications.  

Below are examples of photos from The Jewish Observer (keep in mind that the early years of the magazine had mostly text content and very few images in general, and due to the photo quality you have to squint to see some images).  

I love seeing these photos; even the advertisement drawings.  They bring to life what women and girls of these previous generations were like and what sorts of things they did, what they thought, what they bought, and what styles they wore. I only wish there were more images to look through. 

Just think of the vital history that’s already been lost and that continues to be lost every day since ultra Orthodox media has eliminated female images! It’s not only the images, but once you cut out the image, the magazines tend to cut out the women themselves.  

For example, in 1985 The Jewish Observer did a cover story on Selma Mayer, known as Schwester Selma.  She was the head nurse at the original Shaare Zedek Hospital on Jaffa Road in Jerusalem for nearly 50 years. For many years she was the right-hand assistant of the hospital’s founding director, Dr. Moshe Wallach. It’s hard to imagine how an ultra Orthodox paper would profile such a woman today, without using any photos.  Most current magazines probably wouldn’t run large stories on modern day heroines – precisely because of the picture problem. Hence, women are being left out of Jewish history in a major way.

Along those same lines, based on The Jewish Observer’s trend in photos, because women are left out of the general narrative, these female-free publications morph into “men’s magazines,” written from a man’s lens, even though they are marketed as family publications.  This means that women aren’t portrayed as autonomous individuals, but solely as daughters, brides, wives, and mothers.  The lack of complete coverage paints a false picture that the only roles for females in Orthodox society are as children or as whatever relationship they are to a boy/man – because women are only discussed and visually represented (in drawings or blurred photos) in these capacities. 

The evolution of these photos from 1964-2009 is quite remarkable.  The heyday decades for women’s photos seem to be from the mid 70s to the mid 90s.  The turn of the century marked the gradual erasure of women from The Jewish Observer.  If anyone knows of a major public prohibition against women’s photos from a prominent rabbi or organization from the turn of the century, please enlighten me.  Perhaps competing publications started that banned female images and The Jewish Observer felt they had to follow suit or lose revenue?  I hope you find these images as interesting as I did.

Edited to add – here is an anonymous letter to the editor from 1992 criticizing The Jewish Observer for publishing photos of females in its pages.  The anonymity speaks volumes, as this female-free policy seems to have no direct attribution to any Torah authority (if there is a direct attribution to be made, he/they don’t make it easy to find their names or quotes).


-letter hat tip Fred MacDowell on Facebook

Photo Essay of Female Images Published in The Jewish Observer 1964-2009

-compiled by Sharon Shapiro, 2017