Dei'ah veDibur - Information & Insight

A Window into the Charedi World

24 Shevat 5759 - Feb. 10, 1999 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly







New Am Echad Hasbara Effort Shifts into High Gear

by Yated Ne'eman Staff

The plane carrying 33 Reform Rabbis to Israel, where they were planning to hold a mixed-gender prayer service at the Kosel Ma'aravi, was still over the Atlantic Ocean on motzei Shabbos the week before last, when Rabbi Avrohom Biderman picked up the phone from Yerushalayim.

Rabbi Biderman, managing editor at ArtScroll/Mesorah, has been an active volunteer in the reinvigorated Am Echad effort announced several weeks ago, helping place the broad-based Orthodox organization's attention-getting advertisements in a number of general and Jewish newspapers and carefully monitoring the Israeli press.

On the other end of the line was Rabbi Avi Shafran, Agudath Israel of America's director of public affairs, who has been appointed to oversee the broadened and intensified Am Echad project, which aims at enhancing Jewish Orthodoxy's image and ensuring that the Orthodox perspective is fairly represented in both the public arena and the press.

It was 4:00 A.M. in Israel, and Ha'aretz's early edition had just reported the Reform clergy's plans, the first such public account.

According to Rabbi Shafran, Rabbi Biderman's timely sharing of the information he had culled enabled Am Echad to formulate a clear and carefully-crafted statement about the impending "Kosel confrontation" and to make certain that the press had it in hand even before the Reform activists touched down in Israel.

"Reb Avrohom's quick action," he said, "was crucial, and resulted in a bit of balance in, among other press reports, the page-3 New York Times article that subsequently appeared about the prayer-group's appearance at the Kosel."

That news report quoted from Am Echad's statement, including the group's assertion that "it is unfortunate and, sadly, all too telling that some members of the Reform clergy seem determined to create confrontation not only in the Jewish State's courts and legislature but at what Jewish tradition considers the holiest spot in the world."

Am Echad was also quoted as asking the visitors "to turn their energies to constructive, not destructive, ends, to confront the plagues of assimilation and intermarriage that are raging in their own American communities, and [to] allow Israel's Jews to preserve their own relationship with Jewish religious law and tradition."

Providing Perspective to the Press

"The press is coming to realize that the Orthodox world not only has a perspective," says Mr. Abraham Biderman -- chairman of the Am Echad campaign, among his other communal responsibilities, and a cousin of the previously mentioned Rabbi Biderman -- "but that its perspective is reasoned and often compelling."

Toward that end, explains Mr. Biderman, Am Echad has been compiling and updating press lists for periodicals and electronic media both in the United States and in Israel, and has already established contacts with a number of influential reporters.

A related element of the new effort, notes Rabbi Shmuel Bloom, Agudath Israel's executive vice president and a major impetus of the renewed Am Echad effort, is the in-process establishment of a network of volunteer askonim in dozens of cities across North America, who will monitor their local presses, both Jewish and general, and share pertinent information with Am Echad's national office.

They and other local volunteers in each city, he explains, will be enlisted by Am Echad to respond to certain stories with calls to reporters and letters to editors.

Rabbi Shafran recounted one example of what he expects to become a typical scenario.

"An out-of-state reader, a respected rabbi, faxed us a particularly atrocious article from his local general- interest paper about the latest altercation at the Kosel. It portrayed a local Reform rabbi who participated in the prayer- group as `shocked' at the outrage he encountered. `The last thing Rabbi Fuchs expected,' the piece began, `was...'"

By the end of the day, says Rabbi Shafran, the Am Echad constituent had been assisted in writing a letter to the editor of the paper -- a missive that noted that, far from being surprised at the reaction they caused, the Reform rabbis had every reason to know precisely what would ensue, and had, quite the contrary, carefully planned their service to evoke an angry response, as evidenced by their prior notification of the press.

Am Echad also composed and sent its own letter to the editor of the paper and went on to contact the reporter who had written the article, to apprise him of the misleading and unbalanced nature of the piece. As it happened, the reporter was planning a follow-up article upon the rabbi's return, the pledged to contact Am Echad at that point, to include its perspective in the new piece.

That very day, the Am Echad coordinator continued, he received a copy of an editorial strongly critical of the Knesset's recent vote aimed at ensuring the Orthodox composition of Israeli cities' religious councils. The editorial had appeared in a Pittsburgh newspaper but had been reprinted from the San Francisco Examiner. Within an hour, an opinion piece -- prepared by Am Echad in the wake of the Knesset vote -- had been sent to both papers, along with a request for its publication in the interest of balance.

Advancing Awareness Through Ads

The past week also saw the most recent of Am Echad's eye-and- mind-catching advertisements. Appearing in The New York Times and a number of Jewish weeklies, the latest offering, designed by the advertising firm Mozeson and Malinowski, addressed the spate of recent ads placed by groups like the New Israel Fund and the Association of Reform Zionists of America.

The Am Echad ad sported the provocative headline "If you didn't have this for breakfast, the State of Israel doesn't consider you a Jew" -- above a large photograph of a bagel and cream cheese.

"Clearly a half-baked notion," the ad text explains. "Yet it's no less a distortion than what some American Reform and Conservative leaders have put forth in recent ads and public statements."

The ad goes on to explain that, despite what those leaders assert, "all Orthodox Jews . . . believe that Jews are Jews regardless of their affiliation," and that "far from undermining Jewish unity, Israel's Orthodox parties are trying to maintain it" by keeping the "single standard for conversion" that has "kept the Jewish people one nation for over 3000 years."

The ad, which has received a "tremendous and overwhelmingly positive" response, according to Mr. Biderman, goes on to assert that "American Jewish leaders should be focusing their energies, talents and resources on strengthening Jewish identity and ensuring Jewish continuity in America." Toward that end, it invites readers to call the Am Echad hotline for a list of Jewish schools and adult education programs across the U.S.

Meeting of Minds

Last week also witnessed the first telephone conference of a special Am Echad advisory board, consisting of close to a dozen Orthodox writers, thinkers and activists across the United States and in Eretz Yisroel. The members hope to hold regular weekly meetings by phone in addition to maintaining ongoing contact as situations require, to share information, voice opinions and discuss strategies for effectively furthering Am Echad's goals.

Among those eventual goals are: the commissioning of "human interest" articles portraying positive activities, programs and goings-on in Orthodox communities; the establishment of a publication syndicate aimed at helping place those articles, as well as op-ed pieces promoting Orthodox perspectives, in both general readership and Jewish papers; the formation of a speakers bureau to service non-Orthodox audiences; and the creation of a periodical designed to present Orthodox perspectives to non-Orthodox readers, to be aimed in particular at Jewish communal leaders.

"Carefully developing all the pro-active facets of the plan will clearly take some time," says Rabbi Shafran, "especially when events requiring immediate attention never seem to abate. But, boruch Hashem, the Jewish public has already begun to enthusiastically respond, both financially and personally.

"Am Echad's hasbara initiative is unquestionably in high gear."

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