The concept of public relations is not a new or modern idea. It’s been around for a very long time. Consider this:
Back in the 1830s, the venerable tzaddik Rav Yisrael Yitzchak of Varka acted as a shtadlan, representing Jewry on all issues pertaining to Jewish life and ritual. It is documented that he wrote letters to government officials and urged his contemporaries to do the same.
Some 50 years later, the gedolim likewise recognized the importance of getting the message out. In those days, the threat of the Haskalah (Enlightenment) was very real; multitudes of observant Jews were being led astray. That is why Rav Shimon Sofer and the Belzer Rav decided to publish a newspaper, Machzikei Hadas, in Galicia that would uphold a Torah-true outlook and counter the stemming tide of assimilation.
And they weren't the only ones to do so. Rabbanim of the stature of Rav Shimon Sofer and Rav Meir Shapiro both served in official government positions and played a very prominent role in dealings with the secular authorities. Similarly, during the prewar era, Hamodia was founded with the stated purpose of presenting the viewpoint of authentic Yiddishkeit.
It would be reasonable for us to assume that these lofty giants of yesteryear understood the significance of addressing public opinion outside the narrow confines of their communities. It also underscores the importance of proactively conveying the viewpoint of Torah Judaism to the world at large.
These days, the tools we use to reach out to the public are more sophisticated, but they are also more crucial. Indeed, it is the responsibility of askanim to utilize these modern forms of communication to enable our way of life to be perceived favorably. If a hundred years ago our leaders felt it was necessary to respond to the winds of change, how much more so is that true today, when government policies are so obviously impacted by public opinion, which is directly influenced by the media and the press.
One need only look at Egypt to recognize the powerful influence of social media. In that country, an entire revolution took place and a government was overthrown all because of the massive communication power of social media sites which, by the way, were founded by young people barely out of their teens.
The adversaries of Torah Jewry spend enormous amounts of money for the sole purpose of swaying public opinion. Accordingly, we do not have the luxury of avoiding the world of public relations. We are a tiny minority within a minority, but the world is watching. And the media play an outsize role in how the world looks at us.
We remember only too well how, in the immediate aftermath of the brutal murder of Reb Menachem Stark, Hy'd, the media engaged ferociously in the character assassination of an entire community, dragging out every negative stereotype. The aftereffects of this vile coverage still reverberate, aside from the immense pain that was caused to the family.
I would like to reveal something that can now be shared in order to impress upon readers the effectiveness of proper hishtadlus in protecting our community.
After the New York Post's particularly egregious coverage of the murder, a high-level delegation from Agudath Israel of America met with the top staff members of the newspaper. A stunned editor expressed his surprise at their level of distress, clearly not understanding why they were outraged in light of the papers impeccable pro-Israel credentials and conservative viewpoint. It wasn't until the inaccuracies of the story itself, as well as the connotations of the term chasidic slumlord," were pointed out that they understood the reason for the community's anger.
Are we there yet? Absolutely not! We have a long way to go. But simply ignoring the media and allowing them to portray us however they wish is dangerous and not in our best interests.
Navigating a relationship with the media is not always easy. The message must be well-crafted so that our way of life is viewed positively both by the general public and by those who influence public policies affecting our community.
Make no mistake: Failing to utilize every available method to engage the media is to our own detriment. I urge askanim of our generation to restructure their modus operandi to meet the unique challenges of our time. It is my fervent hope and belief that if they address those challenges appropriately, it will only result in increased kevod Shamayim and kiddush Hashem.
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