Hamodia Wins 4 Awards From American Jewish Press Association

By Shimmy Milkovsky

Hamodia won four awards for excellence in journalism from the American Jewish Press Association (AJPA), highlighting Hamodia’s continued leading role in Jewish journalism.

“We are proud of the excellence our staff has consistently portrayed in their work,” said Hamodia publisher and editor-in-chief, Mrs. Ruth Lichtenstein. “Our consistent track record of winning only confirms this.”

The AJPA is an international organization of English-language Jewish newspapers, magazines and periodicals, with 141 members representing the gamut of Jewish publishing. Its annual Simon Rockower Awards are popularly known as the “Jewish Pulitzers.”

The 2022 awards (for 2021 work) were announced live at AJPA’s annual awards banquet, held this year in Atlanta, the highlight of the annual, four-day AJPA conference.

Hamodia’s four awards this year — the ninth time in the last 10 years it has won at least one Rockower — demonstrate its strength across various components of journalism, as it took home awards for news, opinion, feature and headline writing.

Sara Lehmann was the first-place winner for Excellence in Commentary for three pieces: “The Banality of Evil Imagery,” “The Making of the ICC Monster,” and “A Vaccine to Be Reckoned With,” published in Hamodia’s Prime magazine.

The Banality of Evil Imagery” argues against politicians comparing their enemies to Nazis, and criticizes the Biden administration for appointing anti-Israel activists to top posts.

“It irked me to see the hypocrisy of the left accusing and condemning people on the right for using Holocaust imagery when they are guilty of the same and even worse,” says Lehmann. “They are aiding and abetting enemies of the Jewish people and Jewish state, like Palestinians — look at Mahmoud Abbas, whose Ph.D. dissertation was titled ‘The Other Side: The Secret Relationship Between Nazism and Zionism,’ which is simply Holocaust distortion — and Iranians, who are notorious Holocaust deniers.”

“The Making of the ICC Monster” is critical of the International Criminal Court, and bemoans the fact that one of its founders was former Nuremberg prosecutor Benjamim Ferencz (still with us, at 102 years old).

“Several years before writing the article, I attended an event that celebrated Ferencz’s life and achievements,” Lehmann recalls. “I went in expecting to be thoroughly impressed with this man — who was indeed incredibly impressive. But as the evening wore on, he was making outlandish statements: about not having use for any military deterrent power, criticizing Trump, and talking about his singular dedication to developing the ICC, but not mentioning its condemnation of Israel and of America — it was a glaring oversight. When I tried to reach out to him later, I never got a response. It bothered me to criticize a man of his age, and a hero of the Nuremberg Trials. But I realized that the bad outweighs the good and it was important for people to know just how threatening the ICC actually is.”

“A Vaccine to Be Reckoned With” opposes COVID-19 vaccine mandates.

“The topic was obviously controversial, especially at the time, but I got a tremendous amount of positive feedback,” Lehmann says. “The feedback did not surprise me. What surprised me was that Hamodia gave me the freedom to print this, whereas in some circles this point of view could never be expressed. I was grateful that Hamodia allowed me a platform to present these views, because they validated the views of so many people, who were so happy to see how I had written about what they felt.

“I felt then, and still feel today, that during the past two years of the pandemic, the credibility of ‘the science’ has sadly taken a hit because so many public health officials are just politicians who wear white coats instead of black suits.”

Mordechai Schiller won the first-place award for Excellence in Headline Writing for three headlines: “Afgone, the Never Ending War: Withdrawal to End All in Afghanistan”; “At the Speed of Lie”; and “Just Around the Corona: When Will It End?”

Schiller is something of a national treasure at Hamodia: in a newspaper office where many people have a way with words and stories, none are better than him. Colleagues walking over to say a simple “good afternoon” better have at least 15 minutes available to hear Schiller’s stories about Rav Freifeld or the Amshinover Rebbe or Ben Zion Shenker or Shlomo Carlebach or Mark Twain or politics or folk music or linguistics or the Oxford English Dictionary, all wrapped up with his trademark puns that leave even the stuffiest of colleagues howling with laughter.

“Someone once asked me how I do it,” he says. “I said there is a synapse in my brain that doesn’t know the war is over; and it just keeps on firing.”

For a man who does it all — writing editing, proofreading, and coming up with clever headlines —  Schiller’s official title at Hamodia is just one word. But I’ll let him tell the story.

“I’d been working at Hamodia for a year, when suddenly I noticed my name appear on the internal staff list — but with no title! I emailed [managing editor] Mrs. [Rachel] Roth, and said, ‘I’m honored to have made the roster, but I seem to be the phantom of the operation.’ She asked me to suggest a title. Purely as a joke, I said, ‘How about Wordsmith?’ She loved it. It became, and still is, my only official title here.”

That one-word joke got Schiller another gig.

“I mentioned to Mrs. Roth that ‘wordsmith’ was a title used to describe the great William Safire at The New York Times. It turned out that she was a Safire fan, too, and asked if I could write a language column at Hamodia.”

Thus was born “Going Through a Phrase,” Schiller’s column distilling his wit, stories, puns, twists of language, and jolly good humor.

His brilliance has been noted by the top modern-day linguists, including Bryan Garner, whom Schiller refers to as the “posek acharon” [final authority] on English today.

“Mordechai Schiller is among the best English-language commentators around,” Garner once tweeted, linking to a Schiller masterpiece. “You’ll like, enjoy, relish, and savor his latest column.”

But, like Schiller, I digress. This award was about headlines, after all.

Reporters typically come up with their own titles for news articles. But writing titles for feature pieces and headlines for the weekly paper’s broadsheet take a special talent, and around here that talent is the one and only Mordechai Schiller.

Some of Schiller’s other classic headlines, for articles written by him or others, include “Peacefire” (after Hamas shot rockets despite agreeing to a cessation of hostilities); “Don’t Bitcoin More Than You Can Chew” (about the riskiness of cryptocurrency investment); “Gas Pains” (about high fuel prices); “The Kvetch of Allegiance” (about one of the most popular Yiddish words); and “Grammar and Grandpa” (a riff on his age and profession).

“Writing headlines just happened,” Schiller recalls. “They asked me to write a title for something and they liked it. Then they asked me to write some more. It got to a point that I was once accidentally copied on an email in which someone who had suggested a title was sternly told, ‘Mr. Schiller writes the titles around here.’”

A turning point in young Mordechai Schiller’s life occurred when he was 9 years old.

“My brother, Rabbi Nota Schiller (now Rosh Yeshivah at Ohr Somayach), was then 19. He walked into the living room, where I was watching a black and white Dumont TV. He turned off the set, shoved a book into my hand and said, ‘Read!’”

Schiller had other positive influences at home that spurred his career.

“My dad, Allen Schiller, was a songwriter — he wrote songs to my mother, and also wrote poems. My brother is a writer and poet as well. That’s what got me interested in language.

“My dad was an inveterate punster. He once heard a comedian at a Pesach program complain, ‘I work like a dog a whole year, and comes Pesach, I don’t have a piece of bread on the table.’ Without missing a beat, Dad said, ‘Don’t worry. It will all pass over.’

“I’ve been copying him for as long as I remember. Guess I made a career out of it.”

Reuvain Borchardt won the second place award for Excellence in Enterprise or Investigative Reporting for an article titled, “17 Jewish Girls Twice Kicked Off Plane in Amsterdam, Spend Shabbos in Antwerp.”

On the evening of Thursday, August 5, Borchardt had left work for the day and was home when he got a call that some American Jewish girls had been kicked off a KLM/Delta plane from Amsterdam to New York, for allegedly violating mask guidelines.

“I groaned a little when I heard the news — mainly because I was about to leave town for the weekend,” he recalls. “I got ahold of a brother of one of the girls, who described what had happened, I wrote something up quickly, posted it on Hamodia.com and got out of dodge. There have been quite a few stories of people, including Orthodox Jews, being kicked off planes for allegedly not wearing masks. I figured this was just another one of those and that I was done with it.”

But early Friday morning, he got another message, from a New York-basked askan involved in the case: after much intervention by askanim and elected officials in New York, the girls had been allowed to take another flight to New York Friday morning — but had then been kicked off that flight, apparently because one or more girls had switched seats.

The girls ended up having to spend Shabbos in Europe.

KLM said in a statement to Hamodia that the group “did not adhere to crew instructions and showed unruly behavior on board,” but the girls say this is false and that they were the victim of antisemitic airline staff.

All that weekend Borchardt worked the phones — speaking with some of the girls, their family members, askanim — as well as two other passengers on the flight, both of whom sided with the girls.

The incident was not over (and the story kept being updated) until Sunday afternoon, when the girls finally arrived back in New York, having taken a direct flight from Brussels to Newark Airport — on United Airlines.

In fact, the incident is not fully over yet, as the girls have filed a lawsuit against KLM/Delta.

“Of all the articles I wrote last year, this is one of my favorites,” Borchardt says. “The long period of time over which it developed, the constant updates, the endless phone calls – it’s all worthwhile when you have a good story to tell.”

While this story was covered in many news outlets, Hamodia’s coverage was the most extensive, was cited by some other outlets that covered the incident, including Fox News, Yeshiva World News and Arutz Sheva, and was shared widely on social media. It was one of the highest-clicked stories of the year on Hamodia.com.

Rabbi Binyomin Zev Karman won the honorable mention award for Excellence in North American Jewish History for The Last Stanzia: The Arrival of Mirrer Yeshiva in America 75 years Ago, a two-part feature published in Inyan magazine in July 2021.

“As a talmid of one of the alte Mirrers who went through Shanghai, Harav Reuven Fain, zt”l, I was always fascinated with their wartime experiences,” Rabbi Karman says. “I’ve read extensively about their stay in Shanghai and I knew their subsequent story, their harbotzas haTorah in America and throughout the world. But the early days of their arrival in America — when they first stayed in Arverne in the Rockaways, then in East New York, until they really got settled, was still an unwritten story.”

One day in the spring of 2021, it suddenly hit Rabbi Karman that that summer would be the 75th anniversary of when the first Mirrer bachurim began arriving in America from Shanghai. He decided that the unwritten story had to be written.

While none of those Mirrer talmidim were alive, several young men and women who were with them in Shanghai had memories of their arrival: Rebbetzin Esther Levin, daughter of Harav Efraim Mordechai Ginsberg, who would later become Rosh Yeshivah of Mir in Brooklyn; and her younger brothers Harav Chaim and Harav Leizer. They supplied Rabbi Karman with their own memories and provided some of leads of others he might interview.

Harav Yeruchim Leshinsky, Maggid Shiur in Mir-Flatbush high school, was a son and brother-in-law of an alte Mirrer (Harav Dovid Leshinsky, zt”l, and Harav Shmuel Brudny, zt”l). He had visited the Mir in Arverne, where the yeshiva had stayed for the first few months after its arrival.

“Harav Leshinksy provided much pertinent information, down to minute details,” Rabbi Karman recalls. “He remembered where the Mir had dormed — in unused Coast Guard barracks — and which shul the bachurim had used to learn in, and which they had used for the dining room. He also related his experiences as he visited the Mirrer Yeshiva to attend the aufruf of his brother-in-law, after they had subsequently moved to East New York.”

Another valuable repository of info about the East New York stay was Reb Chaim Stein, a Midwood resident (niftar in 2022) who had grown up in East New York right near the beis medrash the Mirrers had learned in.

Rabbi Karman also checked and published tax photos of the buildings the yeshiva had used.

One exciting resource he discovered was the online gallery of legendary photographer Roman Vishniac, who had taken had spectacular photos of the bachurim’s stay in Arverne: talking in learning on the beach, while wearing coats in winter; Harav Asher Lichtenstein, later Rosh Yeshivah of Kamenetz in Yerushalayim, learning at night; and the family of Harav Henoch Fischman, a longtime chavrusa of Rabbi Karman’s Rebbi Harav Simcha Sheps.

“But unfortunately, the Vishniac gallery had not yet been catalogued and the pictures would not be available for licensing for several months. But while they could not be published in the article, I was able to get a glimpse of their lives at the time, helping to give me a flavor of the Mir’s first few months on these shores.”

In all, it took about 10 weeks of research for Rabbi Karman to prepare this article. The result was a monumental two-part feature titled The Last Stanzia, based on the famous statement of Harav Chaim Volozhiner that America would be the last station for Torah before Moshiach arrives.

“The arrival of the Mir, the sole European yeshivah to remain nearly intact,” says Rabbi Karman, “transplanted the aura of the yeshivah velt of yore to these shores and helped Torah to blossom in its last station.”

“Even though the Rockower awards were given to four names,” said Mrs. Lichtenstein, the Hamodia publisher, “behind every article is a full team of editors, proofreaders, and graphic designers bringing the finished product to polished perfection. Thanks to our entire first-rate team, Hamodia will continue to win, b’ezras Hashem.”

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