No names, please

Conference discusses religious women journalists and the image of women in the religious press.

sivan rahav-meir 298.88 (photo credit: Couresy photo)
sivan rahav-meir 298.88
(photo credit: Couresy photo)
Sivan Rahav-Meir, a religious journalist, covers law and religion for Channel 2 television news. Rahav-Meir and her husband Yedidia Meir, editor of the Ha'aretz satire page, are considered two of the most prominent haredi personalities in the Israeli media. She grew up in a secular family in Herzliya and completed her college board exams by the age of 16. From a young age she wrote for youth magazines and appeared on several television shows for children and teens. At the age of 18, she had already completed a BA in political science at Tel Aviv University. It was then that she started to become religious. She was also a correspondent for Army Radio, a stepping stone for many Israeli journalists. "For the news people at the desk, I represent everybody from the Patriarch Avraham, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef and Yonatan Bassi to Yigal Amir. As far as the religious viewers go, I have a mandate to represent this sector, which is often quite diverse," she says. The plight of religious women journalists and the image of women in the religious press were the topics of a recent conference held by the department of communication at the Lifshitz College of Religious Education in Jerusalem entitled "Religious Women in the Media." The conference, attended by students and faculty, journalists and the general public, took place at Lifshitz College's French Hill campus, which offers various departments for its female students, including the popular communication department. "Today a course on gender and media is a must in every academic framework on communication due to the evolution of women in the media in Israel," says department head Dr. Yoel Cohen. "Regarding religious women, research has focused mainly on the haredi sector." The haredi press operates under the supervision of a spiritual committee that can restrict content, word choice and use of visuals. While women usually write on soft content (health, family issues and consumerism), in recent years tougher and touchier issues have been raised. Marketing executive Esti Blitz presented findings from her MA thesis at Bar-Ilan University about haredi women journalists. As a former employee at a religious advertising agency, she had access to elusive haredi women journalists, many of whom use various pseudonyms. Her research from 2002-3 was based on interviews with 70 journalists working for publications ranging from dailies like Hamodia (hassidic) and Yated Neeman (Lithuanian) to the weeklies Mishpaha and Bekehilla and smaller publications like Hamahane Haharedi of Belz. The average haredi woman journalist is under 35, a graduate of a college or seminary (80 percent have a BA equivalent) and married with five children. Most of the women work as teachers or authors, supplementing their income with journalism. "The typical journalist lives either in Jerusalem or Bnei Brak. These are population centers of haredim and the location of the editorial offices," explains Blitz. Two thirds use pseudonyms and 50% write for a few newspapers while changing their pseudonym for each publication. Most secular women journalists do not cover politics or military affairs despite entering the field a generation ago. Blitz revealed the ironic fact, however, that Yated Neeman's female journalists write in-depth articles on politics in addition to investigative articles on health and transportation. This is due to the fact that women journalists are often hired in Yated Neeman because men in Lithuanian circles do not work but learn Torah. "In recent years journalists cover topics that they would never have covered in the past," says Blitz. "This includes articles about autism and cancer, the shababniks [astray youth] and relationships in the family." One article dealt with the touchy issue of haredi men who are seen more often in clinics with sick children because the wives are at work. The article questioned their role as learners of Torah. "In the past this would never be discussed, and the article cautions about this trend," says Blitz. Haredi women journalists as well as their male colleagues have an important role in transforming the haredi press. Today, the major newspapers also have glossy supplements for women and the family. While half of the journalists are exposed to the secular press, mainly via the Internet, they do not want to work for the secular press. Although some journalists have become authorities and published books in their fields of expertise, Blitz concludes that haredi women journalists did not reach editorial positions and have not succeeded in breaking the glass ceiling. A different picture emerges from the haredi marketing world, where many women set the tone. Seventy percent of the agencies are owned and/or managed by women. Hagit Molad, a lecturer on advertising at Lifshitz College's department of communication, researched this phenomenon for the conference. "In recent years, we see more professionalism in this field," says Molad. "Gone are the days of the one-man show when the advertiser went to the rabbi for advice, and ran around to the graphic artist and printer. Today the haredi advertising agencies hire both religious and secular art directors, accounts managers and planners. They conduct marketing surveys and use marketing strategies." Many companies are aware that marketing is necessary to reach the haredi sector, which as a consumer force was ignored until recent years. Molad found that 47% of haredim prefer brand names. While most of the women decide on the weekly shopping list, nearly half of the husbands do the actual shopping. A health trend is also sweeping the haredi world with nature stores, women's gyms, vitamin supplements and beauty centers flourishing. All this contributes to more ads in the women's supplements. Advertising - another area influenced by the gender balance in the haredi world - pays attention to word choice and visuals in order not to infringe on modesty requirements. Molad showed two ads for a health fund rendering services for pregnant women. In the ad intended for the haredi press, the term "prenatal" is used instead of "pregnancy." A drawing of a young boy pushing a stroller while thinking of the new baby is shown, instead of a pregnant woman in the ad used for the secular press. The haredi press increasingly reflects the changes in haredi society, and women journalists and marketing experts play an important role in the process. "The spiritual committee sets the tone and content of the newspaper," says Esti Blitz. "All of the socioeconomic changes are evident in the articles."