Untangling the Web: Jews before journalists, for one day

I like to think that by closing down JPost.com, we do our little bit to help the special vibe of Yom Kippur in Israel resonate over the Internet.

October 17, 2011 13:19
Youths ride on bikes during Yom Kippur

Kids on bikes on Yom Kippur 311. (photo credit: REUTERS/Darren Whiteside)

A few hours before the Yom Kippur fast begins, JPost.com does a massive copy-edit and then halts updates and closes up shop until a few hours after dark the following day. Once a year, we have to work out how the after-the-fast editor will get inside the building if the holiday-eve editor locks the gate and takes the keys with him - every other day of the year, at any given hour, there’s someone in the building updating the site. The chain between Breaking News editors on the Internet desk is unbroken. Every day except for Yom Kippur.

On this day, we choose to be Jews before journalists, members of our nation before members of our profession. Just for one day.

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In Israel, Yom Kippur is truly a sight to see, one that I think anyone Jewish or otherwise should experience once in their life. As dusk settles on the night of Kol Nidre, the country grinds to a halt; all businesses close, radio and television stations shut down. Silence permeates. Adults and children alike walk and ride bikes through the empty streets. The religiously observant wear white and spend the day in synagogue, the secular go to the beach, spend time with family and friends, read books and watch movies.

I like to think that by closing the site for Yom Kippur, we’re doing our little bit to help that silence resonate over the Web. The print edition gets a day of rest every week, but the non-stop news cycle of the 21st century means that the Internet desk can’t afford that luxury - we’d just miss too much. This is my fourth Yom Kippur working for The Jerusalem Post, and still something about seeing the “JPost.com updates will resume after the Yom Kippur fast” notice that we post on the site before leaving the office unattended strikes a chord in me, despite my relatively non-observant status.

Be that as it may, shutting down a 24-hour, 7-days-a-week news organization with hundreds of thousands of visitors a day is no mean feat. Having decided to do it, the same as we did in previous years and presumably as we will in years to come, a host of questions came up.

First, we needed a few clear contingency plans - nonreligious managers on call, phones left on and e-mails checked from time to time. Believe it or not, jumping over the wall around the building was actually part of one of the scenarios.

Then, with the logistics sorted, there were editorial considerations - how big would the story have to be for us to head into work, some of us while still fasting? Obviously if there was anything like a repeat of 1973, with the entire country mobilizing, I wouldn’t think twice. But there’s a whole spectrum of events that aren’t so black and white. Two years ago, for example, riots broke out in the northern city of Acre on Yom Kippur. If something of that scale happened again this year, when it was me who had to make the call, would that be a big enough story? Possibly not. We sat and went through a hypothetical list. War? Yes. Kassams? No. Schalit? Depends on what. (Editor's note: This column was written before the prisoner exchange was announced) Death of an important leader? Depends on whom and how. Cynical? Maybe. Essential? Definitely.

For me, then, another question arose, begging to be answered: If so many of the stories that we came up with didn’t seem worth coming into the office for, then how important are they really? If we can stop for more than 24 hours for Yom Kippur, then why not Rosh Hashana as well? Or even Shabbat every week? In fact, why do we make our editors work the graveyard shifts at all?

The answer is that while these stories are important in a relative sense, sometimes tradition and unity just has trumps. Despite having no political affiliation, the Post is quite definitely a Jewish, Israeli news organization, and for Israeli Jews, everything stops on Yom Kippur. The shared atmosphere of reflection, the quiet cultivated by the absence of cars on roads all over the country, is special enough to Israelis that everything is put on hold. And the same is true on the site, just for this one day.

Of course, news sites do not run on journalists’ and editors’ good intentions alone; current affairs is most certainly a commercial endeavor. But again, Yom Kippur trumps capitalism too. For this one day, the shared individual identity takes precedence over the global factors that motivate so much of what we do through the rest of the year.

I think part of the reason that we make this decision is that almost the entire editorial staff at the Post identifies with the oleh immigrant experience, a big chunk of which is often awe at the power of the Jewish experience on a national level. We’re used to being part of the minority, and so the feeling of broad unity on such a day is even more powerful.

It’s interesting to note that most other Israeli news sites don’t take the day off. In some shape or form, Haaretz, Walla and Channel 10 all have editors updating their websites over Yom Kippur. Because, as I said earlier, closing down is almost harder than keeping going. Arutz Sheva and other religious Israeli sites do pause their updates, but they do so every week on Shabbat.

Across the Western world, this sort of thing is unheard of. No major 24-hour news sites stops for religious holidays - it’s just unfortunate to be the guy who pulls the short straw and has to work on Christmas Eve. And the Arab world is no different. Most major news organizations’ sites keep updating over Fridays and holidays, and print editions pause only for the two Muslim feast days - Id al-Fitr and Id al-Adha.

As the sun set and darkness enveloped Tel Aviv last Saturday night, after breaking the fast with close friends, I watched through my window as cars started driving, as buses resumed service. I grudgingly opened my laptop, started checking my work e-mails, and scanning Israeli and international news sites, to make sure that indeed nothing from our “Yes” or “maybe” list had played out, which it hadn’t. And before long, it was like nothing had ever happened.

This year we were lucky. We closed the site hoping for personal, professional, spiritual and logistical reasons that nothing big would happen, and largely nothing did, apart from hundreds of e-mails and talkbacks piling up, and the Saturday night editor pulling off an admirable shift, working like a madman to catch up. It’s as if we “got away with it” for another year. A suspected “price tag” attack in Jaffa, a few crime stories, accident casualties over Yom Kippur, minor developments in Yemen and in Syria, and protests in Bahrain.

When push comes to shove, we slipped seamlessly back into the news cycle and into the global sphere, where we’ll stay until next year, when we struggle again to remember who has the spare key to the front gate. In the meantime, we’ll keep striving to provide accurate, well-written and timely news to our readers, while keeping a renewed sense of our individual and group identities close to our hearts.

The writer is The Jerusalem Post's Internet desk manager

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