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A prophet in his own city: Jacob Kornbluh, the Hasidic reporter standing up for social-distancing

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A group of about a hundred Hasidic men and boys milled about on a dark street in the Brooklyn neighborhood of Boro Park, a gleam of fire in the distance. Women watched from balconies above the street at the crowd that had gathered — in violation of New York City’s social-distancing guidelines — to celebrate the minor Jewish holiday Lag B’Omer.

Jacob Kornbluh, a reporter for Jewish Insider who is himself Hasidic and lives in the neighborhood, was passing the crowd on his way home when a man recognized him — and started screaming “Muser, muser!” Traitor.

Others started chiming in: In cellphone videos captured both by Kornbluh and other passersby, and then circulated in Orthodox WhatsApp groups, the mob chants at Kornbluh as he passes through. Muser, muser! The rage is almost palpable; it feels like those men might reach through the screen and grab you by the neck.

For Kornbluh, the incident was the most intense of a weeks-long campaign against him by neighbors and others in the Orthodox community.

Since the start of the pandemic, Kornbluh has been tweeting to his 17,000 followers about coronavirus developments in Boro Park, and reporting violations when necessary — even as he himself was battling the virus at home.

He is one of several prominent Hasidim who have faced harsh criticism and even threats of violence during the pandemic for urging Orthodox Jews to abide by social-distancing rules and reporting those who don’t to the authorities.

Watching the video of the crowd taunting Kornbluh — and watching the larger saga unfold via Twitter these past months — is painful for anyone who cares about the Orthodox world. It is a personal kind of pain for me, both because I have considered Kornbluh a friend for the past seven years, and because I, too, am an Orthodox Jewish journalist often writing about the failings of my community. I, too, have gotten used to being called a traitor.

Jacob Kornbluh at work.

Jacob Kornbluh at work. Image by Jacob Kornbluh

Kornbluh, who turned 39 last week, is a fast-thinking, fast-talking reporter with a velvet yarmulke and peyos whose byline, tweets and physical presence have become fixtures of the Jewish world. Pre-pandemic, if you walked into any major Jewish event in New York City, you’d undoubtedly see him (and, depending on your social status, might or might not make it into his “spotted” list in the next morning’s Insider newsletter). He and I are often seated together at conferences or charity dinners, the only two in Orthodox uniform alongside the bevvy of colleagues in jeans.

After I saw the Lag B’Omer video, which had been shared on frum WhatsApp groups, I called Kornbluh to check how he’s doing.

“Rebbetzinnn,” he drawled. That’s how he always greets me — I happen to be married to a rabbi, but it’s not even about that: it’s a half-traditional, half-jesting frum address to a woman.

“How are you doing?” I asked. “Are you OK?”

“I’m fine,” he said in his usual calm demeanor. Because nothing — not even an angry mob — fazes Kornbluh.

The most famous Hasidic journalist in America

Kornbluh’s English is British with a tinge of Yiddish: he grew up in a Belzer Hasidic family in the Stamford Hill neighborhood of London, the fifth of seven children. He spoke mostly Yiddish with his father, a writer and local community activist, English with his mother, who worked as a wig-maker and chef. “Both of my parents are very booksmart,” he said. “So I read a lot, and I listened to the radio and read newspapers all the time.”

At 16, Kornbluh was sent to yeshiva in Israel; at 20, he moved to Brooklyn, was introduced to and married a woman from Williamsburg, and started working at a hardware store, then behind a kosher deli-counter in Williamsburg, another Hasidic enclave in Brooklyn.

Throughout, he was inhaling news voraciously. “In Shabbos in shul, I was always the one leading the conversation about political events,” he said. When Twitter launched in 2008, Kornbluh finally found an outlet for his political interests. “It was my first opportunity to start communicating with others, sharing my views,” he said. “I started writing, even though my English was bad.”

By then, Kornbluh was running his own business — a pizza shop in Boro Park. But on the side, he began blogging about the 2008 presidential election in the United States, and the elections for Israel’s Knesset. In 2011, he started getting more engaged on the New York political scene, tweeting, blogging and engaging in conversations with local elected officials.

By 2013, as the race for mayor took off, Kornbluh had sold his pizza shop to his brothers and decided to try his hand at journalism — to “run around to all the free events, press conferences, candidate forums and campaign launches,” as he recalled in our recent conversation. “I live-tweeted the events, got to know the candidates on a more personal level.” That year, he got hired as a political reporter for Yeshiva World News, and a few months later, moved on to Jewish news site JP Updates, where he covered New York City Hall.

At public hearings and AIPAC conferences alike, he was always an unusual sight. “People see this Hasidic guy with a long jacket, and they’re thinking, is he a lobbyist? A political junkie? No, I’m actually conducting interviews, reporting on this,” he said. Back home in Boro Park, at shul and on the street, there was a different sort of discomfort. “It was very hard for my community to digest that one of them is out there, posting pictures that include women, asking hard questions,” he said.

“I don’t have a high school diploma, no degrees,” Kornbluh told me. “I learned on my own from reading. When I needed a word, I googled it. I am self-made, because I am so passionate about it, that I really wanted to do it.”

He quickly earned the attention of readers — and respect from sources. David Greenfield, a former member of the New York City Council who is now chief executive of Met Council, a Jewish charity serving New York’s needy, described Kornbluh as a reporter of integrity who is careful to protect his sources.

“We have had people from the Hasidic community break into politics,” noted Greenfield, who is also Orthodox.“But Jacob is the first to break into political journalism. I saw him once in the supermarket, back when he was just a blogger, and I told him, ‘You are going to become the most famous Hasidic journalist in America.’”

In October 2015, Kornbluh moved on to Jewish Insider, which aspired to be the Politico of the Jewish world, with a must-read morning briefing. “The fact that for the past five years, I’ve written for a national Jewish publication, not an Orthodox one, helped me,” he said. “It’s not like I work for a Hasidic publication where I have to adhere to certain rules, where I couldn’t profile a woman, for example.”

Kornbluh reports on Jewish politics, from New York to Washington, D.C. to Jerusalem. He isn’t usually focused on the Orthodox beat, but he does regularly comment on community issues, on Twitter and elsewhere. “At the same time, outside, I am in this position where I can shine a positive light on my community,” he said, “not only tell the stories you read in the New York Post, the sex abusers and the slumlords.”

Kornbluh has five children, yet seems to essentially work 24/6 (his phone is of course off for Shabbos). He seems to know just about everyone, and to live-tweet events as easily as he breathes.

“He always says ‘yes,’ to every opportunity,” said Almog Elijis, a spokeswoman for the Israeli Consulate in New York. “He always asks lots of questions, and I’ve never met someone who has so much insight on everything.”

David Lobl, a New York political consultant and former aide to New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, recalled a 2014 trip to Israel, when Kornbluh was among the gaggle of reporters on the governor’s plane. “It didn’t matter that Jacob was with all these high-powered journalists from The New York Times and the AP,” Lobl said. “He was still Jacob from JP Updates, who instead of going drinking with the other reporters went to the Kotel and to Meah Shearim.”

Until the coronavirus hit, Kornbluh tried to compartmentalize his work and his community. “I do this six days a week,” Kornbluh told me, referring to his journalism. “But there’s always the seventh day, when you have a different role, as a member of the Hasidic community and not as a journalist.”

Enemies of the people

Then came the pandemic.

In March, when some Hasidic shuls and schools were slower than secular institutions to shut down, Kornbluh was a strong voice on Twitter and on community WhatsApp groups urging people to take social distancing seriously. “I informed the community about those guidelines,” he later explained to me. “I communicated with local officials about the issues raised by the community, and also about how very challenging it is for us to actually practice those guidelines.”

Early on, Kornbluh got sick himself — for three weeks, he chronicled his illness and recovery on Twitter. (His test later showed negative for antibodies.) One by one, Kornbluh watched family members, neighbors, and friends contract the virus — in Boro Park, in Williamsburg, in Lakewood and back in his hometown of Stamford Hill. Eight of his relatives and friends died.

Over Passover, he walked by his own synagogue and was shocked to see 40 men davening inside, despite it having been officially closed. Kornbluh filed a complaint via a city hotline, and shared a video of himself on WhatsApp confronting a man leaving the shul.

This was when he was first called a “moser” — an informer, a traitor. His picture and name (among those of two others) were featured on a pashkevil, an electronic flyer, circulated in extremist Hasidic circles, warning community members about the consequences of informing authorities. On Twitter, one account, “Heimishe Niyes,” shared the flyer alongside a quote from Maimonides, stating that it is permissible to kill a moser.

“It’s uncomfortable to walk in the streets,” he said. “I get dirty looks, and haters targeting me on Twitter and WhatsApp. I have not gotten to the point where I was physically threatened, but I was uncomfortable last week,” he added, referring to the time he was accosted near the Lag b’Omer bonfire. “I notified police, and I was given assurances that I’ll be protected.”

The targeting of journalists regarding the pandemic, of course, is not limited to Orthodox circles — it has cropped up at “reopen the economy” rallies and other settings, and is an increasingly common battle cry on the far right. A video recently went viral in which Kevin Vesey, a reporter for News 12 Long Island, was harassed by pro-Trump protesters calling him “fake news,” a “traitor” and an “enemy of the people,”

“I was practically chased by people who refused to wear masks in the middle of a pandemic,” Vesey later told Brian Stelter of CNN’s “Reliable Sources.” “All the while, I was there to tell THEIR story.” The president afterwards praised the protesters in the video as “great people.”

“People can’t get enough of this,” he tweeted.

A fear society, not a free society

The last two months have served as a telling window into the challenges journalists and whistleblowers face in the Orthodox community. It is a more public and widespread version of what has played out for years: survivors of sexual abuse who are silenced; parents who complain about yeshivas’ limited or nonexistent secular education who are censored.

When community members share evidence of misbehavior, in chat groups and on social media, they are often dismissed. “Those are just fringe extremists,” someone might post. Or, “Why don’t you talk about those of us who are following the rules?”

I know because I am often the one sharing such evidence on social media, and occasionally reporting about it in the Forward. I do so largely because I believe it is essential that critiques and introspection come from Orthodox Jews themselves, not only from outside.

And I see the reactions as something of a litmus test for the democratic health of our community. I think of Natan Sharansky’s famous “town-square test” — if a person cannot walk into the middle of the town square and express her views without fear, then that person is living in “a fear society, not a free society.”

That’s how it sometimes is in the Orthodox world, especially in the era of coronavirus.

In Orthodox communities across the United States, medical professionals and social activists alike have been frustrated by some religious leaders’ failures to speak strongly about medical guidelines — last week, Orthodox Jewish nurse and Boro Park resident Blimi Marcus posted a letter addressed to Agudath Israel leadership: “Every hour that you delayed in using your collective power and voice, you infected more and more people.” But Marcus is a rare lone voice — in small online groups, while individuals express concern about local synagogues rushing to reopen, most are too afraid to say anything about it publicly.

“My kids will get thrown out of school,” one father texted me. “I can lose my job,” wrote one nurse who was afraid to speak up. One critical tweet can elicit a flurry of phone calls from neighbors, urging the dissenter to keep their opinions to themselves. A genuine criticism of a public figure is quickly declared “motzi shem ra” — the sin of slander. Pre-pandemic, there was already a general fear of being shamed for speaking out, for not conforming to groupthink — the fear of being shunned at shul the next day, on the carpool line, in the community WhatsApp group. But now, the stakes of either speaking up or staying silent seem all the higher.

In my eight years as an Orthodox journalist writing mainly about Orthodox life for non-Orthodox publications, I have lived this every day. When you’re a member of the very society you’re reporting on, every word is laden with responsibility. Personal and professional are always mixed.

It means that when you go to a wedding, you’ll likely find yourself standing on line at the smorgasbord next to the president of the organization you just criticized. When you walk to your seat on the synagogue balcony, you’ll have to nod to the politician whose statements you’ve shred apart on Twitter. And it’s a good thing, actually — knowing one’s sources and subjects as human beings, knowing one might see them in the supermarket or at shul, helps ensure that one always thinks about the impact of one’s writing on one’s subjects. That kind of empathy is essential to good journalism.

Compared to Kornbluh, I have some distance from the insular neighborhoods of Brooklyn; I am not Hasidic, and I live in Manhattan, where no one comments on whether my wig length is appropriate. But there is a more sinister level to much of the criticism: in a society so concerned with female modesty, a visible and vocal woman can be seen as particularly threatening.

Over the years it’s become my normal. Occasional calls for violence (one memorable note was sent to my grandparents’ address). Phone calls from powerful people to my rabbi-husband — you know your wife is the biggest obstacle to your career, it’s time you rein her in. Harsh emails from organizational leaders and spokespeople tsk-tsking me for falling out of line.

Don’t you know your responsibility, which is to say, we thought you were one of us. (My responsibility as a public-facing Orthodox woman is evidently to extol the values of Shabbos, but with a smile, with a sprinkle of modernishe, ideally with a GIF.) You’re airing our dirty laundry. (Somehow, no one ever confronts those who dirtied that laundry in the first place.) Let’s take care of it behind closed doors. (Nothing important is ever accomplished behind closed doors.)

“When the threats increase, when they target you on a daily basis, when there’s a coordinated effort, many people get deterred and stop doing what they’re doing,” Kornbluh said. “At one point, people can break.”

But Kornbluh said he has learned how to cope with the vitriol. “When someone reaches out on WhatsApp – either engage them in serious conversation, or if you see they’re not there for that, ignore,” he advised. “And if someone calls you in the middle of the night, just don’t pick up.”

A prophet in his own city

This pandemic has clarified cleavages within many Orthodox communities, exacerbating tensions that have been simmering for years — moderates versus extremists, those who acknowledge science versus those who dismiss it, rabbis who called for strict social-distancing versus rabbis who were late to shut down, who looked for loopholes to allow people to still gather.

We saw inklings of this tension in 2018, during the measles outbreak that landed 20 Orthodox children across New York state in intensive-care units, while some key leaders remained silent about the safety of vaccinations. For months now, some fringe extremists have refused to follow public-health guidelines. In turn, some community organizations have ignored that misbehavior — while individuals like Kornbluh who ring the alarm bells are ostracized and even accused of stoking anti-Semitism.

One day, we will return to the rhythm of our previous lives, to our minyanim and our yeshivas and our wedding halls. But the question of how we treat whistleblowers, of how we deal with Orthodox journalists reporting on Orthodox communities, will remain.

Since I started working as a journalist in 2012, writing for liberal Haaretz no less, I would often hear a lamenting refrain: “But why did you have to take this to a secular publication? Why can’t you keep this inside?”

Alas, there is no place to practice serious journalism “inside.” There is not a single independent Orthodox publication in the United States that would allow a serious critique of an Orthodox institution or practice — the kind that pains you to write, the kind that you lose sleep over, the kind that involves actual questions of those in power.

And so, we continue writing wherever we can. Because, as the saying goes, “There is no such thing as a prophet in his own city.”

Except, perhaps, for Jacob Kornbluh.

Avital Chizhik-Goldschmidt is the life editor at the Forward. Find her on Twitter and Instagram.

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