On Media / Pop Culcha

Jewish World Review March 9, 1999 / 21 Adar, 5759

Rabbi Avi Shafran

The Times and
The Timeless

POLICE ESTIMATED THE SIZE OF THE CROWD of Orthodox Jews who gathered in lower Manhattan for a prayer rally the Sunday before Purim at 40,000. It was quite a sight, and quite an experience for those who attended. Tears flowed freely throughout and, as the crowd broke up after 90 minutes of prayer and recitation of Psalms, faces seemed to shine with happiness, holiness or both.

It had been reasonably feared that the winter chill and pouring rain would discourage many from boarding their buses, trains and ferries across the New York metropolitan area to travel to the site.

The Orthodox prayer rally filled 12 Manhattan blocks. (Photo by S. Golding)
But the fear proved unfounded, as an even larger crowd than had been anticipated materialized --- with many hundreds, perhaps thousands, stranded in places like Baltimore, Maryland and Lakewood, New Jersey as the last of the chartered buses filled to capacity and departed. Block after block after block of six-lane Water Street, near Wall Street -- the usual habitat of power suits, laptops and cellphones -- rapidly swelled into a sea of hats, yarmulkes, wigs ... and cellphones, to allow those left behind to be part of the prayers. Plastic ponchos and umbrellas were distributed by trucks that slowly made their way down the emergency traffic lane.

Though a host of television and radio newscasts, and several newspapers, reported on the unusual gathering, The New York Times declined to assign the story to a reporter and ran only a photo, in the paper's Metro Section. Adding injury to insult, the headline of the caption that accompanied the photo read "20,000 Vent Anger Against Israeli Court."

What had motivated those in attendance to come had indeed been, in the words of a participant, "the threat to the Jewish identity of Israel." An alliance of rulings, reformers and radicals have, over recent months, been chipping away at the Jewish State's "religious status quo", the uncodified modus vivendi in effect since Israel's founding, that allows her vibrant democracy to accommodate her declared self-identification as a Jewish State and the sensibilities of her religious citizens. Shabbat, Torah study and halachic standards for conversions have been criticized and compromised, and even an attempt to ban ritual circumcision - the covenant of Abraham, the forefather of the Jewish people -- has become the subject of a lawsuit that Israel's high court has taken under review.

And so it is indeed correct that recent trends in the Israeli courts have raised considerable concern among Jews who care about Israel's religious future. But the Times' caption was nonetheless way off target. Not a single word written or spoken at any point by the event's organizers or by any of those who led the crowd in heartfelt prayer for the preservation of Jewish tradition in the Jewish State could remotely be characterized as "angry".

When I read the Times' headline though, I must admit, I did feel something akin to anger -- frustration, perhaps, would be more descriptive. As an Orthodox Jew who monitors the media as part of my professional responsibilities, I have long become accustomed to seeing a negative slant layered into reports concerning my community. And as the person who had been assigned to coordinate media coverage of the prayer-gathering, I bristled at the treatment it had been afforded by the newspaper of record.

Then, though, the calls started coming in, from countless participants who simply wanted to express their gratitude for the honor of being part of so heartfelt and holy an assemblage. My frustration evaporated.

For I came to realize that, in the end, of course, the media didn't really matter. The event had been a powerful one, even if it had been short shifted and misrepresented by the Times. Participants had, after all, come not to protest but to pray for Israel's Jewish future.

They had stood for an hour and a half in the rain not for the cameras, but before the Creator.

They weren't focused on the Times, but on the Timeless.

Rabbi Avi Shafran is Director of Public Affairs for Agudath Israel of America,
the largest grass-roots Orthodox Jewish group in America.


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©1999, Rabbi Avi Shafran