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U.S. Orthodox Group Goes to Israel to Put Positive Spin on Negative Press

January 24, 2000
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An umbrella organization for U.S. Orthodox Jewry, Am Echad, has opened an office in Israel that will work toward improving the image of fervently Orthodox Jews in the world media.

The Israel office of Am Echad was inaugurated last week in the presence of a delegation of 120 Orthodox leaders and community activists, mostly from fervently Orthodox — or haredi — groups that dominate the organization.

The move reflects the group’s frustration with the image of Orthodox Jewry in the international and Jewish media, especially as the battle between liberal streams and Orthodoxy has heated up in recent years.

It also marks the higher awareness haredim in the United States have regarding the importance of public relations as compared with their Israeli counterparts.

Although haredi Jews often shun the media, they are increasingly dismayed by repeated cases of erroneous reporting on issues relating to their community. For example, they cite reports that Orthodox Jews once hurled feces at Conservative worshipers near the Western Wall. Although this story was never proven, it was reprinted in newspapers around the globe.

Jonathan Rosenblum, director of the new Am Echad office in Israel, said the high concentration of foreign journalists in Israel and the battles being waged by Reform and Conservative Jews have made improved media relations imperative for the Orthodox.

One reason for this, he said, is that many Israeli Orthodox leaders “lack the sensitivity of how to explain themselves in terms that would be intelligible to the press.”

Rosenblum, a graduate of Yale Law School and a columnist for the Jerusalem Post, plans to serve as a conduit to the foreign media and as a source for an alternative perspective to Reform and Conservative leaders. He also wants to promote apolitical stories about the haredi world that he believes will interest readers around the world.

“Most of the stories about Orthodox Jews that get worldwide coverage are generated in Israel,” said Rosenblum. “Israel has sort of become the battleground for American Jewry, and in many respects, I think this is why the Reform and Conservative movements have decided to make war here.”

Liberal Jewish leaders welcomed the challenge. “I hope very much that they step up their efforts because we have never had it better than when fundamentalists like Am Echad attack us,” said Rabbi Uri Regev, director of the Reform movement’s Israel Religious Action Center. “It is the best way of sensitizing world opinion and the Israeli public to the real parameters of the debate.”

Regev even thanked Rosenblum in advance for his future efforts.

“His success will clearly give further exposure to our point of view and educate world Jewry and the world community on the anomaly of the lack of religious freedom in Israel compared to all other democratic countries.”

Rabbi Avi Shafran, Am Echad’s American director, said the primary reason for opening the Israel office is to “to allow for a more accurate portrayal of our world.”

However, he added, the growing conflict in Israel between liberal streams of Judaism and Orthodoxy was clearly a catalyst for the move.

“We feel that we know the dangers of the Reform and Conservative movements to Jewish society,” he said. “We are in favor of free speech but we are not in favor of multiple Judaisms.”

Am Echad was founded in 1997 by Rabbi Moshe Sherer, the late president of Agudath Israel of America.

The group launched public advertising campaigns in the United States to explain its opposition to liberal conversions in Israel. In early 1998, a mysterious group in Israel bearing the same name ran a similar high-profile advertising blitz, but the U.S. organization denied any connection to the Israeli campaign.

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