A conversation with New York’s unofficial correspondent for all things Orthodox.
One day this summer, Joseph Berger of The New York Times got a note from a reader asking if he was the reporter who covered Orthodox Jews for the paper. “Is that your beat?” the reader asked.
The reader might be excused for making this assumption. Berger writes about many communities as a reporter on the Times’ metropolitan desk, but this summer he’s done more than his share of articles about the Orthodox. In recent weeks, Berger wrote about how haredim cope with the extreme summer heat, about the fight between the two camps of Satmar chasidim and about the 2012 UJA-Federation of New York Jewish population survey, which noted the boom in Orthodox Jews in the New York region.
On top of all that he wrote the obituary for Rabbi Yosef Shalom Elyashiv of Israel, which included the wonderful detail that the rabbi left some 1,000 descendants, including a great-great-great grandchild.
“Months will sometimes go by without my writing one story about the Orthodox, but this has been a busy summer,” Berger said over lunch at a kosher dairy restaurant on West 72nd Street. (Full disclosure: I was a reporter at the Times for 20 years, overlapping with Berger from 1984 to 1993.)
But it wasn’t just the volume of stories that was striking; it was also Berger’s insight, sensitivity and familiarity with the world of the Orthodox. His stories include words like “mamzerim,” “posek,” “tzniut,” “tzitzit,” “shvitz,” “Hashem” and “shtreimel,” all gracefully explained by the writer. Berger’s article about the Satmars didn’t merely say there was a split between the two sons of the former rebbe; he called the camps — as the Satmars do — the “Zaloynim” and the “Aroynem.” And his story about chasidim in the summer heat included a memorable quote from a chasidic Jew named Isaac Abraham who seemed surprised at very premise of the story. Berger quoted him as saying: “Does anybody ask a congressman why he walks into Congress with a suit or a Wall Street executive why he goes to work in a suit?”
There are of course other Times writers who write about the Orthodox. Berger was not part of the team of Times reporters who produced a series of investigative articles in May on problems within the haredi community of reporting and prosecuting sex-abuse cases. These included stories with headlines like “Ultra-Orthodox Shun Their Own for Reporting Child Sexual Abuse” and “For Ultra-Orthodox in Abuse Cases, Prosecutor Has Different Rules.” Those articles were criticized on several accounts. Some people felt that they unfairly highlighted a problem in the haredi community that exists elsewhere. The articles were also criticized for using information uncovered by Jewish newspapers without crediting the reporting done by them.
In a column headlined “Credit Where Credit is Due,” the public editor of the Times, Arthur Brisbane, chastised the paper for failing to credit the work of other writers, especially Hella Winston of The Jewish Week.
Berger said that he was not familiar enough with the details of the stories to comment. But he was prepared to respond to the frequent complaints that he gets about the Times coverage of Israel being favorable to the Arabs and even anti-Semitic.
He acknowledged that the Times sometimes makes mistakes in its coverage of Israel, but said that the paper takes pains to get it right and correct its mistakes. “That’s why we have the public editor and letters to the editor and corrections,” he said.
“But even if we make mistakes, there is no conspiracy” against Israel, he insisted. “We try to be as fair and impartial as we can be. We try to capture what we see.” The paper’s foreign report is the product of many reporters and editors, he added, and these journalists have no agenda other than to be “fair and impartial.”
“I don’t believe the Times is anti-Semitic,” he added, “and the fact that we run stories about Yiddish and chasidim is proof of that alone.”
Joseph Berger is the child of Holocaust survivors. He spent his early years with his parents in Displaced Persons camps in Europe, until the family moved to New York City. His first language was Yiddish, a language that he will often use to “break the ice” with chasidim, who, Berger says, “don’t expect a reporter for the New York Times to speak Yiddish.”
Berger, 67, lives in Westchester County, where is active in a Reconstructionist synagogue. And although he is not Orthodox, he said he has great respect for the Orthodox world, especially their “sense of family and community.”
Berger said he was drawn to the recent Jewish population survey because it told the story of how the city had changed since he was a youngster, a time when there were two million Jews in the New York area. He remembered covering the 2002 population survey, which showed that the number had tumbled to around 1 million. The 2012 survey was significant, he said, because it showed that the numbers were on the rise again, thanks in large measure to the growing population of haredim and Russian Jews.
Berger came to the Times in 1984 after reporting for Newsday and The New York Post. He has done a few stints in Israel filling in for the Times’ Jerusalem bureau chief, and he has been an editor in New York. But his true love is reporting. “I still like learning things, finding out about people, about institutions and what they’re about, about problems and issues, and I prefer to do it as firsthand as possible,” he told me. “I also like discovering new neighborhoods and cultures and foods, particularly in this immigrant city where you can be a foreign correspondent and travel the globe on a Metrocard.”
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