Accept No Substitutes

Reflecting the wonderful growth, baruch Hashem, of the Torah-observant tzibbur over the years, the community as a whole has become more prominent in American society. That, of course, brings both opportunities and pitfalls.

The same holds true for the individuals in our world who seek to serve the community in public roles, in realms like community service, media and politics.

There are many examples of responsible Jews who have deservedly achieved prominence in each of those areas; many more among the younger generation aspire to achieve the same. The best among them, though, understand that not every seemingly golden opportunity is in fact worthy of pursuit, not every endeavor worthwhile, not every participation benign. They have learned that ambition and spirit must be counterbalanced by care and wisdom.

All who aspire to shtadlanus, to making positive contributions, whether on the local, state or national level, do well to absorb those truths. Because interaction with the media world or political one is not always as simple and straightforward an undertaking as it might seem at first glance.

Take President Donald Trump’s press conference last Thursday, during which he announced his new labor secretary pick but expressed his chagrin about what he called “fake news” regarding his campaign’s alleged contact with Russia and strongly criticized the media. He also expressed impatience with a presumably well-meaning but inexperienced young reporter from an Orthodox Jewish magazine.

The reporter recently joined the White House media pool, and he had lobbied hard beforehand to become one of those called on to ask questions. He was successful, and when the president called out for a “friendly question” the reporter, in Orthodox Jewish garb, announced loudly, “I’ll be friendly!” and was called upon.

After a lengthy preamble stating that no one he knows in the frum community suspects the president or members of his staff of any anti-Jewish sentiments, he challenged the president about what the government was planning to do about anti-Semitic incidents and threats made against Jewish community centers.

Mr. Trump interrupted the little speech, saying that he knows what he’s going to say before proceeding to call himself “the least anti-Semitic person you’ve ever seen in your life.” He recalled Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu’s vouching for his friendship at the previous day’s press conference, when essentially the same question was posed by a reporter.

A seasoned media maven might have advised the young reporter to dress more formally, to be cognizant of the fact that the Jewish media and the entire Jewish community may be judged (or misjudged) by what he says and how he says it, to be more succinct, and maybe to have even passed up the chance to ask his question, considering the president’s earlier words.

One thing is certain, though: things didn’t work out as the reporter had imagined.

A newly minted doctor, if he’s smart, will be humble. He will not think of himself as already accomplished in his specialty, despite all the hours of study and hard work he may have put in. He will realize that a patient’s symptoms may not always be what they first seem, and that the most effective treatment may not necessarily be what he first assumes. He will recognize his limitations, not assume that his diploma and stethoscope mean he has “arrived,” and will seek a seasoned mentor with whom to consult.

A would-be pundit can have opinions and an ability to creatively express them. But opinions and talent themselves do not a responsible journalist make. Attaining that status involves taking other opinions into account, trying to understand all sides of an issue, and writing, even if rejecting other points of view, with their merits nonetheless firmly in mind. He must not write with the goal of making his readers happy. He must imagine, too, all the different sorts of people who may read what he produces, and about how it will strike them, whether it will, if not convince them, give them food for thought, whether it will engage them and not insult them. Above all, he must have an abiding dedication to truth, and never mislead his readers.

Those who aspire to making a difference in the media or politics face their own challenges. Even the best intentions are no assurance that unforeseen (though perhaps foreseeable) circumstances won’t harm rather than help their mission or the community they represent, who may suffer the ramifications of their missteps. And the potential of making something other than a kiddush Hashem cannot be ignored.

There’s no substitute for acumen born of experience, and no excuse for not seeking it out.