Jewish journalism: A balancing act

Standing Silent Poster

Standing Silent is touring film festivals across the United States and in Israel this summer.  

In June, I flew south for the American Jewish Press Association's annual conference, this year held in balmy Dallas, Texas, which hit 101 degrees every day of our conference.

The meeting - which I helped plan - serves as a yearly opportunity to gather and network with editors, reporters, and advertising sales representatives in Jewish media from around North America and discuss the growing challenges facing our unique, evolving, and cash-strapped profession.

The conference agenda included the following: a "show and tell" session in which journalists share best practices at their local publications; trends in American Jewish demographics and their impact on the Jewish media; a session on improving our publication's mobile strategy; a panel on Evangelical/Jewish relations; another panel on how to report on Israel beyond "the conflict"; and a discussion of veteran White House press corps reporter Helen Thomas and the controversy over the Society of Professional Journalists retiring a lifetime achievement award named in her honor after Thomas spewed anti-Semitic remarks last year.

One session I haven't been able to stop thinking about since returning home to Chicago was a screening and discussion of the new documentary, Standing Silent, directed by Scott Rosenfelt, producer of blockbusters hits including Home Alone, Teen Wolf, and Mystic Pizza.

Now, the filmmaker takes a departure from his usual film genre with his documentary. The film explores the scandal that rocked an insular Orthodox Baltimore neighborhood after former Baltimore Jewish Times reporter and incoming Washington Jewish Week editor Phil Jacobs reveals in a series of articles generations of alleged child molestation by prominent area rabbis, both living and dead.

The reporter is shunned by individuals trying to cover up the alleged abuse rather than disgrace the rabbinate and the Baltimore religious community. Despite his own ties to the community, Jacobs doggedly pursues the story for many months, breaking the silence of the purported victims, exposing the suspected predators, and coping with demons from his own past.

Back in 2000, another Jewish journalist, New York Jewish Week's editor Gary Rosenblatt, ran an expose following months of investigation of allegations of child sexual abuse committed by Rabbi Baruch Lanner, the director of the Orthodox Union's youth arm, who was later convicted of the sex abuse crimes.

In the more recent case, Rosenfelt said he made the film to give voice to sexual abuse victims and he hopes audiences recognize this danger exists in every community. "This affliction is pervasive in all communities and, unfortunately, no one is immune," he said.

The film sheds light on the struggle Jewish journalists, both in the Jewish media as well in the mainstream outlets, face - a conflict we discussed at another conference session with with Rabbi Andrew M. Paley, spiritual leader of Temple Sholom in Dallas.

As journalists we are mandated to reveal the truth, yet the Torah commands Jews not to spew gossip or act as "tale bearers." For Jacobs, another commandment in the Torah not to "stand idly by the blood of your fellow" overrides the commandment not to gossip. Matters of personal safety trump all else.

Rosenfelt said he admires Jacobs' courage for taking on the story. "No one should be afraid to go with their gut no matter the consequences," Rosenfelt said. "I believe bravery comes in many sizes and packages."

The documentary "Standing Silent" is touring film festivals this summer in both the United States as well as Ashkelon, Israel. A Chicago date is in the works. Learn more about the film on Facebook. 

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