| Magazine Feature |

Shifting Ground

How can Orthodox Jews navigate a public sphere that no longer respects our values?

Coordinated by Gedalia Guttentag

For decades, Orthodox Jews faced the future with confidence, secure in the knowledge that their communities would continue to thrive in an America that had a real respect for religion, tradition, and family values.

But slowly at first and then all at once, the public square has become uncomfortable for Orthodoxy. The autonomy of our yeshivah system is threatened by education authorities and has come under sustained attack by influential media outlets such as the New York Times. Schools and businesses are exposed to lawsuits for hiring decisions in line with our core beliefs. On TV and streaming platforms, a spate of negative portrayals of religious Jews has played into the stereotype of our communities as backward and oppressive.

Underlying these disparate elements is the fact that with the rise of progressivism, the zeitgeist has decisively shifted against traditional values.

That sea change — an international phenomenon that has been echoed in Britain as well — has left Orthodox Jews particularly exposed. Already vulnerable to anti-Semitism on the streets, they see a similar process underway in the cultural sphere; uniquely among minority groups, it’s okay to badmouth the Orthodox.

The increasingly hostile environment demands a new roadmap for communal activism, and raises questions of strategy.

In the face of government intrusion into religious freedom, how openly should we challenge authorities and risk sensitive political relationships? How can we build more effective alliances and leverage the clout of like-minded groups in our lobbying efforts? And is there any way to stop the creators of popular culture from spreading a skewed portrayal of our way of life?

At veteran community organizations and beyond, a route recalculation is underway and has led to the rise of fresh approaches for dealing with the new environment, from government relations to media and popular culture.

Values Before Cash

By Avi Schick


ecent surveys indicate that nearly a third of American adults under 30 do not identify with any religion. That is a much higher number than just a few years ago, and it is rising. At the same time, the role and reach of government continues to grow. The result is more government involvement in all areas of our daily lives and less deference to religious institutions and practices.

New Yorkers don’t need surveys to see how this convergence plays out in practice. The past decade has brought us government restrictions on bris milah, tefillah, and chinuch. For the uninitiated, I am referring to New York City’s regulation of metzitzah b’peh, New York State’s pandemic-era designation of frum neighborhoods as zones in which shul attendance was strictly limited, and the repeated attempts to impose curricular and other requirements on yeshivos.

Most recently, the political and media class in New York has focused its ire on Yeshiva University. Every segment of the Orthodox community has now been caught in the crosshairs of a sustained liberal effort to impose secular values on religious activity.

New York’s aggressive new intrusion into religious life has been met by an equally aggressive legal effort challenging those attempts to impair our religious practices. With siyata d’Shmaya and achdus, we have had great success.

But legal victories alone are insufficient. They beat back particular manifestations of the progressive mindset, but do not address the underlying issues. If we do not develop an approach that gets at the root of the problem, we will be fighting these battles again and again.

Diagnosing the problem is the easy part. Prescribing the right remedy and ensuring that we stick with it is far more difficult. Given the growing antipathy to religion and the broad acceptance of a caricature of frum life that mischaracterizes it as uncaring and even abusive to our children and discriminatory toward others, there is no guarantee that anything we do will work. But there are several things that should be tried.


irst, the Orthodox community must substantially increase its investment in day-to-day political organizing. The current model is too oriented toward times of crises. At that point, those whose policies we oppose already have the initiative. The frum community is stuck playing defense.

We need to make our voices heard and develop relationships before problems arise. We can’t rely on casual interactions or pay attention only to statewide and citywide leaders. We must identify the local politicians who can help, we need to identify the ways in which they can help, and we need to make sure that they get to know our religious imperatives and policy priorities before problems arise.

There is nothing particularly novel about this. The challenge is that it is expensive and time consuming.

To give one example: There are more than 300 yeshivos in New York City alone. There ought to be an organized effort to bring political leaders into all of our schools, and to recruit parents in each school to engage with them. Given school schedules, it would take nearly two years to get through all of our yeshivos, even if there was a visit scheduled every school day.

Everybody is busy, and there are always other things that need to get done. But if we only engage during times of crisis, we all but guarantee that there will continue to be crises.

This kind of organized effort is not cheap. It will require a real investment in staff, and financial resources. Playing the long game also requires patience and discipline, which are not always in abundant supply. There is no instant gratification in creating an effective political infrastructure.

None of this is easy. All of it is necessary if Torah life is going to continue to thrive without the interference of those who want to undermine it.

Second, the Orthodox community needs to do a better job in its politics by partnering with other communities that also have an interest in preserving traditional values.

In our successful litigations over the bris milah, tefillah and chinuch restrictions, we made sure that prominent non-Jewish voices were heard — and in some cases were out in front. The Catholic community spoke out prominently against the first round of yeshivah regulations. The Muslim community submitted a powerful brief on behalf of our shuls challenging the limitations on attendance at houses of worship.

Importantly, partnering with others doesn’t mean asking them to voice their support for our legislative priorities after we have drafted them. What it does mean is working closely with other communities to identify looming threats to religious life and coming together to craft an affirmative agenda to address them.

Sometimes that may involve compromises. Occasionally de-emphasizing a particular issue on our community’s wish list in favor of policy priorities that reflect the consensus of a diverse range of religious communities would be a smart investment. It sends a powerful message that the Orthodox community doesn’t stand alone. It projects a strong and unified opposition to those would use the levers of government to attack religious life.


his brings us to the third and final element of our prescription. It will be the most difficult dose to swallow. But without it our religious institutions will continue to come under attack.

For too long, our community’s priorities in City Hall and in Albany have been monetary. This is understandable; our institutions are underfunded and under resourced and need the financial help. Our community deserves it. Our yeshivah system alone probably costs nearly $2 billion annually to sustain and saves the government even more each year.

But being understandable doesn’t make it wise. Money may be the coin of the realm in politics, but it is often a really bad way to measure true political friendship or support.

Government can spend almost endlessly. Sticking some money in the budget may be as much about avoiding choosing political sides as it is about picking them. Everybody can get some money; it is not a zero-sum game. That is why our state and city budgets spiral increasingly out of control year after year.

True political friendship is expressed when there are competing choices to be made. In those instances, our priorities rarely get chosen.

Consider anti-discrimination laws. They used to be drafted to ensure that religious institutions and adherents would not be in violation for sticking to the values dictated by their faith. No more. As anti-discrimination prohibitions that reflect values at odds with our own have increased, they have eliminated or decreased protections for religious beliefs or institutions.

There are surely larger societal forces at work. Yet it is equally certain that elected officials believe that their standing in our communities will be fine as long as the steady drip of government funding continues. Very few of our leaders or institutions will have the fortitude to criticize the hand that feeds it.

To be clear, I am not advocating that our community stop advocating for funding. Nor is it obligated to support political candidates or parties who make promises but have no reasonable path to victory. What our community does need to do is make clear that helping to protect our way of life is far more important to us than helping to pay for a bit more of it.

Our religious leaders frequently remind us that the most valuable things in life can’t be bought. Our communal leaders need to keep that in mind when prioritizing our policy preferences. It is our best shot at obtaining the protections we need to live the lives we desire.

Avi Schick is a partner at Troutman Pepper and president of the Rabbi Jacob Joseph School.

Why They Have to Know Us

By Avrohom Weinstock

The text came in from Shloimie,* a senior executive at a large commercial bank, at 12:19 p.m. on September 22, 2022.

“Help,” he wrote. “I don’t know if we ever discussed this in shul, but I work for a bank and my team does many loans for yeshivahs. I am presenting a deal for a very large institution today and one of my credit guys got hold of the New York Times article and is circulating it to everyone. The article is irrelevant and offensive. How do I respond? Thanks, presenting at 2.”

After a Times article on special education in yeshivos appeared, Malky,* mother of a child with considerable special needs, called. “I am in court now, following the process to obtain reimbursement for needed services for my disabled son. At the beginning of the hearing, the lawyer and judge held a sidebar. I heard them snarkily discuss if this is one of those ‘Orthodox Jewish kids they saw in the New York Times.’ I am reeling. What do I do?”

These unfortunately true anecdotes capture a sampling of what many frum Jews experienced this past winter.

This was not the first time that a large media outlet has painted an unflattering image of Orthodox Jews. But between September 11, 2022, and March 2, 2023, one of the most influential papers in the world launched an unprecedented, relentless campaign negatively depicting Orthodox and chassidish Jews. Seventeen lengthy, sometimes front-page “investigative journalism” pieces, focusing on yeshivah education, were waylaid to depict tropes about our community’s “bloc vote,” which effortlessly bends politicians to our will; rabbis’ iron grip on their sheep-like congregants; forced marriages; corrupt batei din wielding gittin to crush families underfoot in their religious zealotry; our classroom rebbeim’s alleged abusive treatment of children; and frum Jews, generally, as inherently backward and intent on bilking the system.

Only a fool would think these articles were about improving education. The opinions of OTDs and those with known vendettas to the community were selected to drive the narrative. The dystopian, theocratic lampoon of Jewish life was unrelievedly bleak. If only we were enlightened!

The slick repackaging of ancient anti- Semitic tropes did not end with the Times. It was repeated, in some form, by print, digital, and television news outlets nationwide. Aside from prejudicing frum individuals like Malky and Shloimie, an emboldened Albany was now eyeing various new anti-yeshivah measures.

Agudah’s network of regional directors reported the negative impacts of the invective reporting around the country.

The Times’ sustained campaign is the strongest sign to date that something has changed, and that the new media environment is immeasurably more hostile to our community than was previously the case.

This is bigger than the Times. There is a concerted effort by anti-Orthodox organizations like Yaffed, Footsteps, and others to feed negative stories about frum Jews to every form of media, and many are happy to oblige. These stories typically sell, accruing clicks and views, feeding a financial demand for more.

The Agudah has advocated for the community in the legal and legislative arenas for decades, striving to ensure, under the guidance of our gedolim, that we can continue to keep Torah and mitzvos in this long galus. But laws start with people. Anti-Orthodoxy starts with people. We have clearly seen that if we ignore the human aspect — especially when others are actively portraying us as somehow different — we risk losing battles before they begin.

So while Agudath Israel is not a media organization, ignoring this was not an option. There was little time to hire new staff, so communications, development, and other individuals at Agudah pitched in to temporarily assume significant new responsibilities to fill the void. Daas Torah was consulted; we were directed to change tactics and not let this concerted attack on our community stand unchallenged.

The question was how: A full-page ad in the Times expressing our displeasure? Did we really want to reward bigoted reporting with our advertising dollars? An ad in a different reputable paper? How many secular papers or magazines are read in print today? Boycotts are cathartic, but typically have little impact. Nor do our gedolim generally condone street protests.

We decided to embark on a two-part strategy. In today’s media cacophony, one must make a splash. But a splash without substance would be a washout. We needed to push back against a media behemoth and challenge the narrative about a highly religious group that looks, acts, and has values at odds with today’s society.


a first for Agudath Israel, we kicked off with an ambitious billboard and digital ad campaign. Digital ads were relatively easy to implement. But regarding billboards, we discovered that, significant expense aside, few would post billboards critical of the Times. With siyata d’Shmaya, we found takers to post massive billboards in Times Square, above the Lincoln Tunnel, and, ahem, next door to the New York Times headquarters in midtown Manhattan, garnering millions of eyeballs daily.

Synergistically with our billboard and digital ad campaign launch, we quickly created a website, KnowUs.org, which the campaign directed people to. The effort, dubbed “KnowUs,” invited people to know us, on our own terms, with the slogan, “Faith. Freedom. Facts.” For the journalists and detail-oriented, the website contained a white paper deconstructing the Times’ claims, demonstrating that, while no system is perfect, yeshivah graduates perform far above average by any objective measure, including financial, wellbeing, longevity, crime, and civic engagement. Allegations of corporal punishment at yeshivos are, proportionately, a fraction of that at public schools. The white paper detailed how the state’s regulatory regime over private schools is harsh, sometimes more onerous than public schools. The website featured videos showing what actual frum Jews are all about, and a sampling of their heartwarming stories.

Outlets were intrigued by a small religious group fighting the Times. Fox News created a multipart documentary about the KnowUs movement, interviewing Agudah’s executive vice president Rabbi David Zwiebel, and board member and community askan Mr. Chaskel Bennett. JNS, the Washington Times, the Daily News, and many others wanted to learn more, and KnowUs helped coordinate many more accurate, evenhanded articles about the community. The tone in Albany shifted, we were told.

There was another side.


ut while we were making headway on the media front, the Times continued to rack up honors for its series, legitimizing the narrative it had created. In February 2023, the Times won the prestigious Polk Award in journalism for “piercing the insular world of Hasidism.” In March, Harvard University named the Times a finalist for its Goldsmith Award in investigative journalism for revealing how yeshivos’ “intensive religious instruction in Yiddish was often punctuated by slaps, kicks and other regular uses of corporal punishment.” New York yeshivos, apparently, were among the most significant stories in the world this year. Soon, pundits opined, the Times would be crowned with the most prestigious award of all in journalism for this series: the Pulitzer Prize. There would be no coming back from that.

Encouraged by Rav Brudny shlita, we decided to try to head this off. We tracked down every member of the Pulitzer Prize Board and overnighted each one a 30-page letter, sourced with 70 endnotes, and emailed it widely to the press. The letter detailed not only the anti-Semitic undertones of the reporting, but how the articles breached numerous ethical codes of journalism and the Pulitzer Prize’s own rules.

The letter attracted more media coverage, with the letters editor of the Wall Street Journal calling KnowUs’s work, “damning. For one, [the letter shows] the NYT systematically misrepresented professional anti-yeshiva activists as run-of-the-mill parents.”

Would it be enough?

We watched the livestreamed Pulitzer Prize award ceremony (another first) at Agudah’s Manhattan office spellbound. To the surprise of many, the Times did not win a Pulitzer, was not a finalist, nor did it even receive an honorable mention for its reporting on the Orthodox community — work that a team of Times journalists had sunk three years into.

In subsequent interviews, the New York Times heir and chairman, A.G. Sulzberger, cited KnowUs’s letter to the Pulitzer board, and was forced to defend his paper’s coverage.

This feel-good David and Goliath story has a wider lesson about the importance of standing up and pushing back against distortions of frum Jews.

We are under no delusions that we will “win” public opinion. Nor are we trying to make everyone like us. But many simply believe what they read. And if we sit this battle out, and neglect to push back with the truth, we will surely lose. Lose a yeshivah’s mortgage application, lose services for a frum child in need, and lose on a communal level when significant decisions are made behind closed doors, for reasons that are not always fair or rational.

Avrohom Weinstock JD is the chief of staff of Agudath Israel of America and director of KnowUs.

Changing the Picture

By Allison Josephs

When anti-Semitism comes from the right, it’s easy to recognize. White supremacists hate minorities (and occasionally shoot up shuls). Historically, Christian nationalists segregated hotels and beaches and gatekept at Ivy League universities, law firms, and hospitals against Jews and other minorities.

Politics started shifting in a surprising way on the left in recent times. The group that historically protected the underdog, that valued diversity and inclusion, now routinely excludes Jews, because Jews are perceived as white and “privileged.” According to that worldview, the “worst offenders” are those who cling to their traditions and land. The Jew who disavows his connection to Torah and Israel is a tolerable Jew; the proudly observant Jew is primitive and deserving of vilification.

The new brand of leftist anti-Semitism is abundant in media. There have been a dozen TV shows and movies in the last 20 years celebrating frum Jews becoming “unorthodox.” The ones who remain are depicted as insufferable extremists. News media regularly demonizes chareidim and Israel. While most observant Jews prefer not to expend time and energy worrying about content consumed by secular Americans, the troubling reality is that traditional media has real power to shape mindsets and attitudes. We ignore their destructive messaging at our own peril.


hile Hollywood espouses authentic storytelling for other minority groups, most writers and producers are too judgmental to learn about the nuance within the frum world. This leads them to conflate the most extreme stories from our community with normative frumkeit.

For example, the writers of the New York Times’s 18-part exposé on Orthodox Jewry only wrote about the most disenfranchised members of the chassidish world, omitting all mention of the happy and successful ones.

The same principle holds true for fictional media. There are people who leave Torah and mitzvah observance due to unpleasant experiences. But the multitudes who stay or become observant never get featured in a movie or TV show — because writers and producers, quite often Jews, see it as a “mitzvah” to free “backward religious Jews” from their “cultish practices” and don’t bother to educate themselves.

Back in the early 2000s, the rise of social media gave formerly isolated people who had been hurt by schools or family members a platform to share their trauma via anonymous blogs. While some of that exposure led to positive change in the community, with community leaders and frum media outlets creating space for challenging conversations, there were many negative outcomes as well.

Blogs turned into books, which turned into exposés and Netflix series, which center around the heroes making their valiant escape from the benighted frum Jews, which the audience cheers on. How pervasive is Netflix? It is estimated that over 6.1 billion hours of its content is streamed every month.


ears of bad press about frum Jews seems to be leading to increased violence against us and decreased understanding by politicians and voters. Impact studies for other minority groups have shown the correlation between negative media leading to negative ideas about the community.

It’s a dismal picture, but we need not despair. There is a way forward. We can go straight to Hollywood to correct the misinformation about who we are and demand the same treatment that every other minority group receives.

In 2007, I founded Jew in the City, a 501(c)3 to harness the power of social media and show the positive side of the frum community that traditional media misses. I came by my work honestly, through my own personal metamorphosis.

I was raised as a proud Conservative Jew but was taught to despise frum Jews, whom my family perceived as primitive and extreme. When I was just eight years old, a triple murder of a classmate and her family pushed me to question my existence. This led me to explore Yiddishkeit as a teenager and adopt a frum life. After starting a career in kiruv, I realized that most secular Jews share the bias I was raised with. I started Jew in the City to address and counter that bias.


spent 15 years using social media and some news media to advocate for the frum world. Then a couple of years ago, I “accidentally” discovered that every minority group but Jews had been formally organizing for decades through Hollywood bureaus.

If they could do it, why couldn’t we? And considering the damaging picture that kept emerging from Hollywood, how could we not? This inspired us to launch JITC Hollywood Bureau, the first and only Jewish Hollywood bureau, using the same methods other minority groups employ as they advocate for authentic representation.

We’ve learned that television and movie studios hire consultants when writing scripts about specific minority demographics. We’re advocating to have frum consultants and writers in the room when our stories are told and we’re close to achieving this.

We have also learned that the studios use “fact sheets” to help them build accurate portrayals of specific communities, so we are currently building a Jewish fact sheet with a leading group that sends fact sheets to all the television studios. It explains that we’re sick of being depicted as miserable, judgmental people who can only be praised when we “escape.” Instead, we want to see the beauty of frum life reflected accurately in television and movies.

We’re also raising money to commission a study with a major academic entertainment institution that will measure tropes in fictional and news media against Jews and Israel, and will also put content in front of viewers and determine how it impacts their opinion of the community. (A similar study showed that negative depictions of Muslims led to harsher opinions on US Muslim policy from the average viewer.)

When our study is done, the institution will call in top media executives for a day of pointed and specific, fact-based feedback, so they can ensure that the products of their efforts do not serve to increase anti-Semitism.

In the short time since our launch, our advocacy efforts have been welcomed with tremendous positivity. We have met every television studio to explain that Jews belong in these conversations, point out the hypocrisy in excluding us from telling our own stories, and explain the real and present danger visible Jews face, as Hollywood foments hatred against us. We held the first panel on Jewish representation at the Sundance Film Festival, to a standing-room-only crowd. Variety magazine named me a Top 50 Change Maker in Inclusion in Entertainment in 2022.

In an ideal world, frum Jews wouldn’t have to worry about Hollywood — but the reality is that 85 percent of the world consumes this content. Our way of life should be celebrated, but instead it’s being denigrated in release after release. Improving Hollywood’s picture of frum Jews could reduce chillul Hashem and increase kiddush Hashem, reduce the spread of damaging tropes, and perhaps even inspire secular Jews and non-Jews with a picture of a healthy, vibrant, and beautiful lifestyle.

Allison Josephs is the founder of Jew in the City and Project Makom, an outreach initiative that works to reverse negative associations of frum Jews.

A Clear Torah Voice

By Yaakov Menken

For nearly 250 years, America has provided shelter to Jews by upholding freedom of expression and religion, while rejecting the notion of a state religion that could force its beliefs upon others. But the “woke” religion of today’s progressives — with its irrational dogma, rituals, and declarations of faith — provides a new framework to justify bias against Torah Jews.

A Jew — or anyone else for that matter — who maintains beliefs grounded in Torah can be labeled “phobic” and “bigoted,” worthy of being censured, fired, or driven out of business. With increasing frequency, bakers, florists, and even web designers who decline to celebrate “alternative lifestyles” have faced penalties and lawsuits, and now health care providers and those in many other fields are threatened as well.

Jack Philips, the evangelical Christian designer behind the Masterpiece Cakeshop in Colorado, has faced over a decade of legal battles — even after the Supreme Court found that his religious faith was treated with obvious and unconstitutional bias — simply because he believes he cannot celebrate behaviors that violate his religion. Lorie Smith of 303 Creative similarly had to go to the Supreme Court to secure her right to choose which wedding websites she will design.

Imagining that our community will escape persecution is naive at best. Just several weeks ago, a kosher bakery declined to create “pride-themed” products — and multiple non-Orthodox synagogues and the local Jewish Federation accused the owner of “bigotry.”

New proposed rules from the Biden administration would ban any effort to keep men out of women’s sports, and even penalize doctors who refuse to prescribe unhealthy drugs or do surgical harm to their patients. Several states will help a formerly frum ex-spouse violate custody and schooling agreements for a child purportedly in need of “sanctuary” to pursue damaging “treatments.” These inhumane proposals are specific, undeniable attacks upon Torah observance, basic decency, and common sense.

And it is only getting worse. Ten years ago, no one imagined that New York would try to force Yeshiva University to recognize a club advocating for anti-Torah lifestyles. If one wanted to engage in anti-Semitic persecution without once mentioning Judaism, this is precisely how one would go about it.


ealing with the new progressive hostility requires a three-fold strategy: articulating an authentic Jewish voice; speaking before our community is attacked directly; and building broad alliances.

A Torah voice on these issues is crucial to counteract the influence of progressive Jewish movements. America calls its founding values “Judeo-Christian ethics,” giving disproportionate weight to the Jewish view. When the only “Jewish” perspective they hear is that of anti-Torah leftists, it is an extraordinary chillul Hashem that causes extraordinary damage. Many on the left now regularly portray Torah values as uniquely Christian, and rational stances as violating church-state separation, because there has been no Jewish voice for Torah values.

Multiple existing organizations do outstanding advocacy work for our community’s unique needs. But were they to also counter the claims of Jewish progressives in less immediately relevant areas, they would risk distancing themselves from leftist legislators otherwise willing to support school busing, synagogue security, and other communal priorities. And so, six years ago, a group of rabbanim launched the Coalition for Jewish Values (CJV) to articulate our principles in areas that stretch beyond our community.

Whereas others joined us in supporting Phillips and Smith, CJV was recently cited as the only national Jewish organization actively opposing men in women’s sports. Our schools do not have swim teams, but our community will eventually lose access to separate swimming and private spaces if we do not speak now. Similarly, we recently formed a Health Care Council, because despite the leftist threats to the careers of frum providers, there was no observant Jewish group to collaborate with the medical organizations defending their rights.

That connects to alliance-building with others — senators, congressmen, and major think tanks who have long awaited a Jewish partner in pursuit of shared policy goals. Our community organizations have always engaged in this, but that effort needs to be upgraded. By extending ourselves to voice support for others before our community is impacted directly, we demonstrate that we as a community stand for something, and come from a place of deep moral conviction, knowledge of right and wrong.

Such efforts give us credibility with these powerful allies when we address issues closer to home. Our letters were instrumental both in removing Rep. Ilhan Omar from the House Foreign Affairs Committee, where she could do the most damage to the US-Israel relationship; and in stopping Rep. Rashida Tlaib’s “Nakba” event from happening in the Capitol building. These letters were effective precisely because members of Congress knew about our other work, and knew that our concern was genuine and moral, rather than political.

There are other, practical steps to take: Our schools and organizations should revise their bylaws to require fealty to Torah law. Synagogues, which are entirely religious in nature, are relatively immune from attack, but not so our other community resources. There was already a Torah day school teacher who claimed to be frum, but turned out to be violating numerous Torah prohibitions in front of his students on a daily basis. Guides from Religious Freedom Institute and similar groups can help institutions make relatively simple changes now that will shield them from expensive legal battles down the road.

When we follow Torah and they call us names, we have nothing for which to apologize. But our community must respond, because the mob is already at our doorstep. We cannot wait until they treif up the metaphorical kitchen before articulating our views and declaring that those views are under attack. At that point, the only question will be which of our rights we can recapture, and which we will have to give up.

That’s why we must expand these and similar efforts both nationally and internationally, because similar battles — replete with misrepresentations of the authentic Jewish view — are being waged in state and local legislatures, and in the governments of most Western countries.

We can correct the record on Torah values, if we are willing to proclaim them in the public square.

Rabbi Yaakov Menken is managing director of the Coalition for Jewish Values.

Government anti-Semitism czar Lord Mann on a visit to London’s Bais Yaakov Primary School

Bring Them In

By Yoel Friedman

IN a fast-liberalizing society, traditional concepts of morality are now considered outdated and intolerant — a new consensus that is reshaping laws and has powerfully impacted Torah-faithful Jews in the UK.

Due to the small size of the country’s chareidi community, which numbers approximately 80,000 and is dispersed across various locations in the UK, the community lacks political influence.  In addition, and in direct contrast to the United States, which devolves a great deal of power to individual states and local governments, power in the UK is centralized in Westminster, London — a fact that does not bode well for the interests of minorities, especially those in outlying communities.

As that centralized power adopts the progressive agenda, the ramifications are frightening for observant Jews. Recently the outgoing head of Ofsted, a government agency that grades the performance of schools, emphasized that school leaders should promote “muscular liberalism.” In practice this meant requiring the chareidi schools to actively promote tolerance and respect for the full range of 21st-century lifestyle choices.

Tolerance and respect for other people’s opinions and freedom is what we do best, but teaching kids about the details of these lifestyles, a condition on which Ofsted is adamant, is a different story.

Similar messages come from other directions as well: Mainstream newspapers write about chareidi “forced marriages”; shechitah and bris milah are challenged on a regular basis; some coroners routinely demand autopsies without reference to religious concerns; organ donation is now “deemed as consented”; and the push to legalize euthanasia is steadily being normalized.

The growing hostility of the environment that has emerged from this progressive shift is clear, but what is the best way to counter these threats? The chareidi community of the UK has been blessed with several organizations and initiatives, such as the Interlink Foundation and Chinuch UK, which advocates and negotiates directly with the government and legal bodies to counter threats to religious life.

We at the Pinter Trust (a subsidiary of the Interlink Foundation) have a difference focus: public opinion. At the behest and with the strong support of daas Torah, our mandate is to correct the negative public perception of chareidi Jewry.

We believe that much of the negative messaging stems from the perception of religious Jews as antiquated and “other.” There is an alarming lack of positive messaging, and in the resultant vacuum, negative perceptions hold sway.

We aim to counter that dynamic by acquainting decision makers with our community, affording them a close-up view of a lifestyle that is not only relevant, but fully compatible with the values and realities of 21st-century British society.

Over the last 18 months, we have invited over 70 external stakeholders to visit our community. There they witness the sight of happy children skipping in schoolyards, observe a mother handing her three-year-old son to the rebbi in cheder for his first alef-beis lessons, and experience firsthand a vibrant community brimming with business and entrepreneurial spirit, overflowing with volunteerism and acts of kindness.

The urgent need for direct interface between decision makers and the chareidi community was underscored a few months ago when a government department concluded a multiyear review of the relationship between government and faith in a country that is now majority secular.

Among the report’s recommendations were moves to shutter yeshivos (referring to yeshivah ketanah of boys aged under 16) and to combat forced marriage in the chareidi community — a dreadful mischaracterization of the shidduch system.

To head off these threats, the Pinter Trust reached out to Baroness Jane Scott, the government minister whose department had issued the report, and invited her to visit the chareidi community of Stamford Hill.

During her visit, she emphasized the importance of inviting as many people as possible to experience the community firsthand, recognizing that “simply reading reports is insufficient.” As a result, we have arranged for a larger group of civil servants from her department and others to visit chareidi communities.

The firsthand contact also cemented an important relationship and gave chareidim a voice in the conversation: Baroness Scott has invited us to provide feedback on the report to her office, as the government determines which of the recommendations to implement.

Fending off harmful legislation should be a last resort, though. Navigating the new environment means engaging with media outlets to shape the coverage of our community that wields an outsize impact on public opinion and informs policy makers’ decisions.

We achieve this by inviting journalists to visit and explore our community, rather than drawing conclusions about us from other sources. During a recent conversation with a senior BBC journalist, he expressed his realization that his entire understanding of the chareidi community was “solely derived from non-chareidi sources,” and it “doesn’t feel right to rely on such one-sided perspectives.”

There are, however, instances where we must confront the media when necessary. Not too long ago, a leading national newspaper published a front-page story, along with eight separate pieces, highlighting the “dire state of education” in the chareidi community. Unfortunately, the journalist declined offers to visit schools or speak directly with parents, instead opting to interview a limited number of individuals who have left the community. This misrepresentation was deeply concerning, and has already had a negative impact on policies.

That specific newspaper didn’t provide us with a fair opportunity to present our side of the story. Fortunately, we found other media outlets that were willing to listen and engage with us. When a BBC journalist came across our response, she immediately sensed the need to dig deeper. She reached out to the Pinter Trust, and we facilitated her visit to the Satmar Cheder in Stamford Hill, resulting in a video item produced for BBC News.

As the chareidi community’s first attempt to reshape the prevailing narrative, we believe that the approach of inviting journalists and decision makers into the community to experience our lifestyle firsthand represents a significant step toward presenting a more balanced perspective.

This attitude is especially crucial here in the United Kingdom, where the sense of fairness and power of persuasion will shape the future. Through dispelling misconceptions and engaging in meaningful dialogue, the Pinter Trust believes public opinion can be reformed and reshaped against the barrage of negative messaging in the media and the street.

Yoel Friedman JP is director of public affairs at the Pinter Trust. 


(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 970)

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