By Diane Winston
How does the paper of record report on religion? If the September 11, 2004 story on Montpelier, Vermont’s new rabbi is any indication, not very thoroughly.
The article, which appeared in Saturday’s “Religion Journal” contained one egregious error and several significant omissions.
Toward the end of the piece, reporter Katie Zezima writes “The search committee found Rabbi Margolin, a constructionist who spent who had spent fifteen years building a small congregation in Belle Mead, N.J. into a thriving synagogue and Hebrew School.” Huh? “A constructionist?” Is that a new term for rabbis who build synagogues?
Didn’t anyone on the copy desk wonder?
What Ms. Margolin actually said was that she was a Reconstructionist, a member of the smallest–but arguably most influential–branch of Judaism. That information, as well as some description of Reconstructionist Judaism–no less Judaism itself–is missing from this edition of the Religion Journal. Readers find out how the rabbi and congregation feel about issues of rabbinic authority versus lay leadership, gay congregants and clergy, and Jewish life in Vermont. But who is Shana Margolin? How was she trained? And most important, how will she bridge the different Jewish traditions–Reform, Conservative and Orthodox–that exist in Temple Beth Jacob?
Even if the reporter had written that Rabbi Margolin is a Reconstructionist (and the prefix dropped out after she filed), there is no mention of the ideas, beliefs and traditions that animate Judaism, Reconstructionism, Rabbi Margolin, or members of Temple Beth Jacob. It’s a lost opportunity because the story of a quirky synagogue and its creative rabbi holds a lot of promise.
However it’s the kind of promise that rarely gets covered. Two 1999 studies, one funded by the Ford Foundation and the other by the Pew Charitable Trusts, found that religion itself — what and why people believe — was missing from most reporting that ostensibly covered religion.
That the latest installment of what The New York Times presents as its “Religion Journal” should illustrate this very point is a sad epiphany.
Diane Winston is the Knight Chair in Media and Religion at the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Southern California.