Avital Chizhik-Goldschmidt Tells her Story as an Orthodox Female Journalist at Beth Jacob
Last Wednesday night, at Beth Jacob Congregation, Avital Chizhik-Goldschmidt, an editor at The Forward and a journalism teacher at Yeshiva University’s Stern College for Women, spoke about her career as an Orthodox female journalist. Her talk, entitled “Let Me Hear Thy Voice: Feminism, Modesty, and Journalistic Ethics,” was part of the Modern Minds on Jewish Matters lecture series.
Avital began her story with that of her great-grandfather, Ilya Koganov, a journalist in the Soviet Union who paid the ultimate price for his commitment to tell the truth. In 1935, he was sent to Birobidzhan in the Far East, where Stalin had planned to resettle the Jews. Nobody knew it back then, but it had been part of Stalin’s plan for a “final solution,” which thankfully got thwarted by his sudden death. In Birobidzhan, Koganov saw horrible living conditions and rampant malaria. He understood that the Soviet government wanted him to report only the positive, but he could not bring himself to go against his journalistic ethics. Kaganov was arrested on account of Zionist activities, and his family never heard from him again. Assuming that he was sent to Siberia, the family sent letters there for years. It was only decades later, in 2007, that the family found out that Kaganov was executed in an unmarked location soon after his arrest.
Growing up with such stories, Avital inherited her great-grandfather’s journalistic ethics. Her parents immigrated from the former Soviet Union to New Jersey, where they reclaimed their heritage and became Orthodox. As a child, Avital found the transition to frumkeit difficult, especially the prohibition to write on Shabbos.
Avital has always been writing. As she got older, she began to see her writing as her way of serving Hashem. After high school, she attended Stern College, hoping to become a writer. While in college, she wrote her first honest essay that went vira—her thoughts about modesty and what she called the “Orthodox compulsive disorder.” She wrote that we flaunt our modesty to such an extent that it becomes immodest and that we need to be modest about modesty.
After this essay, “I couldn’t stop,” said Avital. “I continued writing about issues I was passionate about.” She was young and single back then, and her writing affected her personal life, as Orthodox young men were hesitant to meet her. Yet, “I couldn’t keep quiet even if I tried,” she said.
After she sent off a passionate letter to the editor of Haaretz newspaper, the editor told her that Haaretz was in need of an Orthodox voice. She was offered the job, which she gladly accepted. “I began writing about the beauty and the challenges of Orthodox life,” she said.
In her new position, Avital traveled a lot and conducted many fascinating interviews. At the same time, she continued writing about women’s issues. Citing a midrash about the daughters of Tzelafchad, Avital said, “In order to overcome human limitations, frum women need to speak up.”
Even though much of Avital’s writing was about the frum community, she found that frum publications were not interested in publishing her articles. “There is a lack of free discourse” in the frum world, she said. Frum publications prefer positive articles about the good in our community, but they do not wish to expose the negative. Avital turned to secular publications to build a platform where she could pursue her passion of effecting change through her journalism.
In the thick of her writing carrier, Avital married a rabbi and found herself in the role of a community rebbetzin. “The tension of careers is real,” she said. Her congregants sometimes disagree with her articles, which leads to uncomfortable situations. But both she and her husband are devoted to their congregation and manage to make it work.
To date, Avital has covered a wide range of topics, from abortion to violence against Chareidi Jews. While some of her articles describe positive aspects of the frum community, others draw attention to the areas that need improvement. She draws inspiration from Yeshayahu haNavi, “the first journalist in history, speaking his truth despite the consequences.” She also quoted a different Yeshayahu—the philosopher Isaiah Berlin—who said that journalism does not provide solutions, but it describes problems so clearly that they no longer can be ignored.
As a frum journalist, “I have to stand behind every word I write,” Avital said, explaining that she would continue to see the subjects of her articles at lifecycle events and be held accountable for her writing.
While she doesn’t “coat things with sugar” when it comes to the frum community, at the same time, writing for a secular publication presents Avital with “opportunities to defend our community,” depict the Orthodox world in a positive light, which she feels is important in the current political climate.