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Jewish Journalism: Questioning the Value of My Profession After the Newtown Tragedy

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I am a Jewish journalist. I also work in Jewish journalism.

When I first decided my career interests lay in journalism (and not in medicine, as I had thought for many years) I yearned to break out of what I saw as the confining walls of Jewish journalism. I accepted that, as a student in an Orthodox university, my student journalism would by nature be Jewish journalism, but my dreams for the future lay in the offices of the New York Times and Newsweek. Jewish journalism seemed, initially, unimportant.

That changed when the student newspaper that I started, the Beacon, caught the attention of national media when it was threatened by the university to take down a certain article or lose university funding. More importantly to me, though, the article in question -- a firsthand account of premarital sex in the undergraduate body of Yeshiva University -- sparked conversations about premarital sex in the Orthodox community, a conversation that seemed to me to be necessary and previously lacking.

I realized then that my work as a Jewish journalist could directly impact my own community, and make important changes for the people I knew best. I realized Jewish journalism was not simply a forum for matzo ball soup recipes, and I embraced my position as a Jewish journalist. That summer, I worked for The Forward, a leading Jewish newspaper, and learned all about the various roles Jewish journalism can play, from informer to entertainer to discussion platform. Jewish journalism can, and does, change the world on a daily basis.

A non-Jewish editor once told me that what he learned from working in Jewish journalism is that there is a Jewish angle to every story, and that's more or less true. Christmas? Talk about Jews who celebrate Christmas, or how Jesus was a Jew, or why Hanukkah is similar to Christmas. Superbowl? Kosher food at the game. And so on. Sometimes you might have to dig deeper than other times, but there would always be someone, somewhere, who had some Jewish connection.

At the time, this seemed like a positive insight. More recently, however, I've begun to question the wisdom of this. What set me off was the shooting in Newtown, Conn. A terrible tragedy that captivated the nation and set in motion everything from conversations about gun control to ideas to commemorate the lives of the 20 children who were killed, the story could not be ignored by any newspaper, and that included Jewish newspapers.

As proud as I was of how we at New Voices chose to approach the topic, I was more than a little disturbed at what seemed to me an overall exploitation of the death of Noah Pozner, the one Jewish boy who was killed in the attack. Day after day, my inbox was inundated with e-mails from the Jewish papers I subscribe to, all headlining with some variation of Noah's story. Noah's twin sister who survived. Noah's rabbi's eulogy. Even Noah's favorite foods. I don't know how his parents felt about the exposure -- maybe they found it comforting, for their little boy's life to be honored by so many publications. But to me it felt like Jewish media was grabbing on to any Jewish angle they could find to make the Newtown story their own. To me it felt like this poor boy and his family were being used for the purposes of selling a story. Once more, Jewish journalism seemed less than perfect.

Is Jewish journalism's purpose only to find an angle? Do we as Jewish journalists simply search each story from every direction until we can find some obscure slant that will make the article "Jewish" enough to be published? This seems a dishonest use of a profession with a higher calling. No, not every article must be a platform for discussing and furthering the Truth, whatever that may be. Some articles are meant simply to entertain or explore. But this desperate clawing for a foothold in every popular story is less than appealing. In fact, it's downright disillusioning.

Maybe that's too harsh. Or maybe that's all journalism. Certainly, journalism has its grubby side. Even non-Jewish journalism was questioned for the way it responded to the shooting. But journalism has its shining moments as well. Journalism has the capacity for greatness, to make the world a better place, and certainly a more informed place. Without journalism, democracy would not succeed as a governance of the people, for people would be ignorant of the country around them. And even in much smaller ways, journalism goes beyond good and does acts of great.

But the shine has certainly been dulled for me. The noble profession I hoped to enter has revealed a side to me that I cannot respect. Instead I approach Jewish journalism -- and yes, journalism in general -- with caution and doubt. Perhaps, though, that's the only honest way to approach anything in life.