Better Than an Agent

by | in People

imageIf God ever needed a PR person to handle the foreign account, He found it in Binyamin Jolkovsky.

We all know who is in charge of the domestic part of the PR operation for Torah interests. If we wanted to showcase Judaism to Jews who know little or nothing about authentic Judaism, we would send them to Aish.com, Ohr.edu, OU.org or Torah.org. These sites—and others—do an excellent job of presenting information to the curious Jew in an intelligent and tasteful manner.

What about the curious non-Jew? Do we care about his or her Jewish knowledge?

There is some evidence that we should. Rambam1 writes that it is part of the profile of those who love God to “seek and call to all people to His service, and to believe in Him.” He, in turn, also seems to care about getting His word out to all of humanity. Upon entering the Land of Israel, we were commanded to set up tablets inscribed with large sections of Torah content in seventy languages.2 Even though Klal Yisrael had been elected decades before to be the primary recipient of the Torah, God wished that the thrust of its message be understood by all. He wanted the inhabitants of the land to also understand the aims and intentions of His people.

JewishWorldReview.com does much of that work today. Its founder, Binyamin Jolkovsky, had covered the religion beat for The Forward, and worked his way up to contributing editor. Chasing after a story about intermarriage a decade ago, he realized that many who had preceded him had interviewed outreach workers, parents, spouses and community leaders in pursuit of the magic formula to keeping Jews Jewish. One group had been largely overlooked—the recent intermarrieds themselves.

Sensing that the younger generation was disproportionately wired to the Internet, Jolkovsky cast an electronic net, trolling for information. On an old usenet group, he addressed a few questions to the Jewish world at large: Why did you or your relative intermarry? What did you find negative about Judaism? The results crashed his e-mail client. He was inundated with responses from people who wanted to talk about why they married out or turned their backs on Judaism, or both.

Most of the responses emphasized negatives. They saw Judaism as lacking any spirituality; they were only aware of a Judaism that embraced lots of negative imagery, like the Holocaust, anti-Semitism and terror victims. It was a bleak landscape they looked out upon, and they were eager to find a prettier picture.

Jolkovsky immediately understood a few things. If the Internet could be such an effective tool for gathering responses to a question, it could be equally potent in disseminating information as well. Through it, young Jews could be reached inexpensively and in large numbers, but it would require an image makeover, a rebranding of Jewish identity. Jewish World Review (JWR) was born in that epiphany.

Jolkovsky knew from the outset that he had to rebrand Judaism as a provider of moral guidance and relevance. He sensed that people disposed to traditional values would be the best targets for kiruv. He looked largely (but not exclusively) towards conservative writers who wrote in ways that embraced some Jewish values. He pursued them one by one, gaining rights to publish their work. (In some cases, he helped them secure their own syndication contracts.) He became a consolidator of some of America’s most popular opinion writers all gathered under one roof, including Mitch Albom, Dave Barry, Larry Elder, Paul Greenberg, Victor Davis Hanson, Nat Hentoff, Jeff Jacoby, Paul Johnson, Ed Koch, Charles Krauthammer, Michelle Malkin, Jackie Mason, Dennis Prager, Cokie Roberts and Mort Zuckerman.

The roof was broad enough to leave prominent room on the homepage for large helpings of timely Jewish content, presented enthusiastically for all to savor. Visitors to the site who come for some political or social commentary cannot help but encounter names they don’t see in the general media. Gradually, names like Rabbis Nathan Lopes Cardozo, Hillel Goldberg, Jonathan Rosenblum, Avi Shafran, Abraham Twerski and Berel Wein took their place in JWR’s popularity ratings beside the secular titans of commentary. The clear winner in the competition is the image of Jews and Torah among those who had little or no contact with them—or worse yet, only knew them through ugly stereotypes. Non-Jews learn the subliminal message: Jews aren’t bad people, and the Torah has enough wisdom to go around for them as well.

Jews, unaffiliated with conventional Jewish institutions and in some cases too geographically isolated to make affiliation an option, rediscovered their Jewishness through JWR. Jolkovsky fields questions about halachah and child-rearing, and passes them on to a small group of acquaintances for response. He has sent numerous people on to Partners in Torah to set up Torah study partners over the phone.

Jolkovsky knew from the outset that he had to rebrand Judaism as a provider of moral guidance and relevance.

Along the way, something happened that changed the essential nature of JWR. Sean Hannity started citing the web site. So did Rush Limbaugh. During the hearings to confirm John Ashcroft as attorney general, Senator Oren Hatch’s staffer read a piece from JWR penned by an appreciative St. Louis Orthodox rabbi who lauded Ashcroft for his assistance. Senator Hatch’s staff contacted Jolkovsky, who put them in contact with the author. The letter was used at the hearing to scotch rumors that Ashcroft was unpopular in the Jewish community.

Jolkovsky understood that he had picked up an important, if originally unintended, audience: non-Jews. Today it is impossible to know what percentage of JWR readers are not Jewish, but comments on the site show that it is significant. Some of these non-Jews write Jolkovsky to tell him that they had never met Jews in person, and had always had negative feelings towards them—until they saw in JWR a face of Judaism and Jews they never knew existed. Some of them write to tell him that they have become supporters of Israel.

Today, JWR is huge. It gets hundreds of thousands of unique visitors a month; page views amount to several million. Unfortunately, it remains underappreciated by many Jews who do not recommend the site often enough to their non-Jewish associates.

The site is also under-funded. Jolkovsky—with the cooperation of his long-sacrificing wife—has spent years of his life shouldering the burden of JWR alone, working on it for twenty hours a day. Advertising revenue now brings in some support, but not enough. Through the years, JWR has come close to folding many times, sometimes rescued by appeals by lots of impressive columnists,3 and in publications such as the Wall Street Journal. Given JWR’s unique role and unqualified success, you would think funders would beat a path to his door.

AskMusa
In some parts of the world, saying something positive about Jews or Judaism is unthinkable. Layer upon layer of misinformation and disinformation creates anti-Semitism the likes of which make Der Stürmer look like a Bar Mitzvah lesson.

There are more than 1.2 billion people in the Muslim world, and they do not all think and act alike. Writing them all off will quickly become a self-fulfilling prophecy. We cannot know how many moderates exist—and how many more could exist—but if we fail to encourage them, we will lose the only strategy we have (besides davening for a Divine solution, which is always our most dependable recource) to make any contribution to the problem of anti-Semitism. Muslims, on the other hand, have not taken a sit-back-and-wait position. They have increased their efforts to influence more of us, with the entrance of Al-Jazeera into the English-speaking market.

So much of the success of the campaign to isolate Israel rests upon people’s ignorance about Jews and Judaism. Is it possible that in a population of 1.2 billion souls, some people, if given the opportunity, would be curious enough to question what they have been force-fed? AskMusa.com, launched in the fall of 2007, is the brainchild of the associate dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, Rabbi Abraham Cooper. He noted that many of the moderate Muslims he had encountered (there is no question that they exist, and deserve our encouragement) had not been raised that way. At some point, they met and developed relationships with Jews in the flesh. They learned that the Jews they met bore no resemblance to the ugly stereotypes they had been fed. In some cases, this provoked a crisis of faith. If they had been lied to regarding the Jews, how many other lies had they been taught?

AskMusa affords Muslims an opportunity to interact with Jews through the privacy and anonymity of the Internet. They can ask questions about anything having to do with Jews and Judaism (except for politics, which would quickly chill any conversation). Here they can also find essays on a variety of topics that show some of the commonality between Islam and Judaism, such as the Oneness of God, prayer and charity. They can also find hard-hitting and stereotype-shattering essays on the Holocaust, the Protocols of the Elders of Zion and what the Koran really says about the Jews (the latter written by a moderate Muslim). They can do all of this in five languages: English, Arabic, Farsi, Urdu (the national language of Pakistan) and Bahasa (spoken in Indonesia, the most populous Muslim country). If more funding becomes available, there are plans to expand to Turkish and German, to include two other large concentrations of Muslims.

Responses to AskMusa have run the expected gamut. Some visitors to the site let forth torrents of invective directed at the “pigs and monkeys” who run it, refusing to talk about anything but why the “Jews murder innocent Palestinians each day.” A few visitors let the editors know how they felt about using the name Musa, which is Arabic for Moses. (How dare the Jews use Musa’s name as if he belonged to them! Musa, we all know—peace be upon his soul—was Muslim!)

One fellow in Cambodia was puzzled by the essays. They made sense, he wrote, but obviously could not be true, since they conflicted with so many things he had learned by reading the Protocols of the Elders of Zion.

There was no shortage of positive responses as well. Someone in rural Morocco wrote about memories of his childhood—how Jews used to live peaceably among them. A correspondent in Algeria wrote of his pleasure in finding the site. His parents had always stressed that he must seek peace, and learn to accept and live with all people. He welcomed a forum in which people of good will could exchange ideas.

We can only hope and pray that we will soon see the day in which Torah will not need any PR agents, neither within the community nor without, but that it will

Rabbi Adlerstein interacts with all sorts of people in his several roles at the Simon Wiesenthal Center, Loyola Law School and the editorial board of Jewish Action.

Notes
1. Sefer HaMitzvot, Affirmative Obligations, no. 3

2. Devarim 27: 2-8. See Netziv, Kidmat HaEmek: Even though the text would inevitably lose something in a translation into any other language, there are valuable lessons for non-Jews in examining even the plain sense of Torah text.

3. See http://www.jewishworldreview.com/press/2002-06-01upi/.

This article was featured in Jewish Action Spring 2008.

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