BEHIND THE SCENES: Letters to the Editor

letters to the editor



How do you decide which letters to print?

Letters that are inappropriate from a Torah perspective, letters that contain information that is clearly inaccurate, or letters that are simply not coherent are rejected immediately. From the remaining letters, we try to take into account a number of factors, including how relevant the topic is to the average reader, how legible the letter is, and the number of other letters we have on this topic. On those articles that elicit opposing opinions from readers, whenever possible, we try to give a sense of balance in choosing the letters we publish.

Take us behind the scenes and describe the process of considering letters that come in.

Most letters that end up being published are approved — pending space considerations — as soon as I get to read them. They then go to an editor who corrects any mistakes in grammar and punctuation, and are placed in a folder, waiting their turn to be laid out on an actual newspaper page. If we have already filled our quota for letters for the upcoming week, we save them for the following weekly issue.

Most of these letters are published within two weeks of our receiving them.

Like everything else in the paper, letters are still carefully reviewed before publication by copyeditors, proofreaders and our Mashgiach.

The majority of letters that we don’t use at all are also decided on right away. This could be for a wide variety of reasons, such as too many similar letters on the same topic, or the letter doesn’t meet our standards.

Then there are what I refer to as the “borderline letters.” While they have some redeeming factor, such as addressing an important topic, they raise some concerns either regarding content or the tone of the letter. Sometimes we have already “closed” a thread, and we discuss whether the points raised in the letter are valid enough that we should re-open it.

These letters are circulated among members of our editorial board for review and discussion. Oftentimes a decision is reached after a round of emails, sometimes we actually have an in-person meeting about them.

Few readers would imagine how much consideration we give the letters we reject, let alone those we do publish!

There is another category of letters that we mark “under consideration.” While they meet our standards, at first glance they don’t seem all that compelling. We wait to see what else we have that particular week, consider how much space we have, and then decide.

What’s the proportion of positive letters to critical letters?

Most letters are neither positive nor critical, but air the views of readers on a wide range of topics. I have never tried to take a tally, but I would estimate that of those letters that do take a specific position on a particular article or issue, the critics and those showering compliments are about even.

How many letters arrive by fax/regular mail vs. email? Is that balance different from a few years ago?

Most letters arrive by email, but, surprisingly, we still receive a significant number of letters via fax. Clearly, we have a substantial percentage of readers — or at least of those readers who write letters — who don’t have email access, a fact which in itself is very telling. Even among those letters we receive via email, some are typed or handwritten attachments that were scanned and sent by relatives or friends of the writer.

We also get some letters via old-fashioned “snail”mail, a high percentage from prisoners in state and federal penitentiaries or seniors.

Which times of year do you receive the most letters, and which times of year do you receive the fewest?

We have noticed that at the end of Elul and during the month of Tishrei there are often fewer letters coming in. The same applies for right before and after Pesach and Shavuos.

We certainly can understand that readers are too busy to put their thoughts to paper before Yamim Tovim. But we often find it surprising that we get so few letters — relatively speaking — regarding our Yom Tov issues, when our publication is replete with extra supplements. While we appreciate feedback all year, we are especially eager to hear back from readers about what they liked — and didn’t like — about those special issues.

What do you do when a single article generates too many letters to print?

It is usually more a matter of avoiding repetitiveness than sticking to a quota on any specific topic. We have on occasion published a significant number of letters on the same topic, provided they didn’t overlap with each other.

How heavily are letters edited before print?

Most letters are edited very lightly for grammar and punctuation, as we try to maintain the “voice” of the writer as much as possible. We sometimes have to shorten letters because of space constraints or because portions of the letter don’t meet our standards.

If, however, we find that were we to cut out part of the letter that we feel is inappropriate the writer’s message would be distorted, we don’t use the letter at all.

Letters whose writers agree that we can use their names are generally edited more gingerly than those who insist on being “name withheld.”

Do you inform letter writers before you print their letters?

Until the moment the paper actually goes to print, we can’t know for certain whether a letter (or an article, for that matter) will actually be published. Because of space considerations, our extensive review process, including of course our mashgiach, who is fully authorized to remove a letter or article, changes can be — and are — made at the very last moment. Therefore, readers often find out whether their letter was actually published at the same time I do — on Wednesday.

We try to acknowledge receipt of all letters, and let readers know when a decision was made not to publish a letter.

What types of articles tend to attract the most letters?

That is a question that my colleagues and I have been wondering about for a long time!

Though I have been sorting through letters for years, I still have not been able to come up with a conclusive theory as to why readers get passionate enough about certain topics to write a letter, and not about others.

There are some relevant and emotionally charged issues, such as children who are unable to get into yeshivos or other schools, that open a floodgate of letters. Opinion pieces that take stances at odds with certain elements of our readership also attract a noticeable number of letters. Avi Klar, who for many years wrote op-ed pieces in these pages, managed to elicit quite a few strongly worded critical letters, especially during the debate over the Iran deal in 2015.

I spoke recently with Mr. Klar, who hasn’t written for us in quite a while, and urged him to start writing again — simply because his hard-charging critics are some of the most articulate and intelligent letter writers …

He told me that he is very busy with other projects, but would take it under consideration. We will have to see.

Currently, Rabbi Avi Shafran’s pieces get more feedback than most other op-ed writers. On the other side of the political spectrum, articles by Rabbi Yochonon Donn also garner a significant number of letters, except that in his case, they are more likely to agree with what he wrote.

Mordechai Schiller, who is one of the most gifted and entertaining writers I have ever read and a most delightful person to talk to as well, also manages to attract letters from his extensive fan club.

Can you tell which demographics tend to write?

We know very little about our letter writers. We can’t even always surmise their gender by reading their first name, as some use only an initial and a surname. Unless it is somehow relevant to the topic being addressed, we don’t know their ages or occupations.

But it does seem that relative to their percentage of the general population, retirees and seniors are more likely to write than younger people. Personally I think that this isn’t merely because they have more time on their hands, it is because, unlike the youth of today — who are accustomed to expressing themselves in easy-to-misunderstand, short and cryptic text messages — this generation can still write a real letter.

I have found that readers in England and in Israel are more likely to write, relatively speaking, than Americans.

It actually gets a little confusing for us, as the European and Israeli editions of Hamodia don’t have all the same articles that the American edition has, and even the articles that are shared are on different pages, and possibly of different lengths.

While we work very closely with each other, each edition has its own editorial staff, and own email address for letters. But for some reason, we get quite a few letters about those editions here in our New York office.

We also get quite a few letters about articles that appear in Inyan. While that magazine is an integral part of Hamodia, it actually has its own editorial staff and its own letters to the editor page (

When Hamodia receives letters critiquing the paper and asking for changes, does management take those suggestions seriously?

Absolutely. First of all, we analyze the criticism with an open mind, and, if we feel that the writer has a valid point, we take it seriously. Second, for every reader who makes the effort to write, there are likely many more readers who feel the same but didn’t get around to writing.

Are there any letters you’ve encountered that stand out in your memory?

On occasion we get letters from Roshei Yeshivah and Rabbanim. It is humbling and inspiring to see that not only do our Gedolim consider Hamodia their window to the world, but actually take the time out of their precious schedules to express their thoughts and reactions.

We often receive very heart-warming letters from prisoners, telling us of the enormous impact Hamodia has in their lives. These are always touching.

One of the most interesting letters I recall receiving was a letter addressed to me personally, in response to a news article I had written. The FBI had been accused of using some sort of training material that was said to be insensitive toward Jews, and I interviewed an FBI spokesperson about it.

A few days later, the FBI agent wrote to me saying that numerous media outlets had written about the story, and Hamodia had done the best job getting the facts right and giving the story a sense of balance.

I was floored. For one thing, this was well before Hamodia had a website, so the agent had to actually go and purchase a hard copy of the paper. Also, I thought I had been quite tough on the FBI in that story…

We once received a very articulate letter from a reader about a certain topic. A couple of days later we received a frantic email from a family member of the original writer, pleading with us not to publish the first letter. According to the family member, while there was no way for anyone outside that family to figure it out, the letter was intended to send a “message” to a specific person… And that person reads Hamodia and would know it meant him.

In that case, the second letter arrived too late, as we had already published the letter.

Hopefully, the family has sorted things out by now.

On another occasion we received an email from a writer seeking to retract a letter he had sent us a day earlier, as he greatly regretted writing it…I was glad to inform him that we had rejected the letter in any case.

We also receive a surprisingly high number of letters referring to articles that appeared in other publications. One particularly irate reader was furious about an article about a painful machlokes. I knew we had never published such an article, and told the reader so.

“But I only read Hamodia,” the man countered, “so it had to have been in your paper.”

After I continued to insist that no such article had appeared in Hamodia, he suddenly said “you know, I was away for Shabbos and my host had some other publications… It must have been in one of them. I knew that in my house we only read Hamodia, and forgot…”

Another time, a woman wrote a very sharp email lashing out at a “very inappropriate” article. But when we asked her to please specify what the article was about and in which issue it appeared, she said she couldn’t recall anything, but “You should know, it was in your newspaper…”

If I’m a reader writing to a paper, what raises my likelihood of seeing it in print?

Only a fraction of our readers take the time to write a letter-to-the-editor on any specific day. So the very fact that you wrote gives you an excellent chance of getting published.

Letters written in response to an article that appeared in Hamodia have a better chance of being accepted.

The right word count is also helpful. Letters should ideally be between 300 and 600 words.

Letters whose writers allow us to use real names also get precedence. And a little fame won’t hurt you.

You are encouraging readers to use their real names, but you are declining to identify yourself for this article. Isn’t that a contradiction?

That is a valid question.

I do write regularly for Hamodia using my own name. (And I make sure to recuse myself from judging any letters that come in about my articles.)

But when a reader’s letter is rejected — that is something that readers take personally. And as someone who lives in the heart of a community in which the majority read Hamodia, things can get pretty sticky. As it is, I am approached in shul, in the grocery store, and even on the street in freezing cold weather by readers eager to share their thoughts and air their complaints. Some of them are total strangers, who somehow found out my identity. Others are friends and neighbors. So in order to ensure that my work does not interfere with longstanding relationships, I think it is best that my identity remains anonymous.

Is there any other message you want to impart to readers?

Many of the best letters that we publish are from people who never saw themselves as the “type” to write a letter, and never wrote a letter before. So many readers have great letters in their heads. It is a matter of bal tashchis not to write!

We eagerly await hearing from you!

To Read The Full Story

Are you already a subscriber?
Click to log in!