Controlling the Narrative

The Father and Son Duo Who Quietly Kill Negative Media

The media hates us, right?

If you ask Yosef and Alexander (Sender) Rapaport, a Boro Park father-and-son team who have become media experts, it could have been a lot worse. A published story negative to the Orthodox community has either been vastly toned down from the original, or it represents five other stories that were killed after reporters received new information.

Yosef and Sender, founder of the Masbia soup kitchen, are longtime friends of mine. For years, they’ve harnessed news outlets such as the New York Times and WNYC to go beyond the typical scandalous reports about the Orthodox community. Articles with their fingerprints tell the story of our community in ways that would have been unthinkable several short years ago.

“You opened up the Hasidic community to me,” wrote Joseph Berger, a New York Times reporter, in a book inscription to Sender five years ago.

Sender sends me a long list of articles he and his father have been involved in. From a film about the Orthodox community to measles and special education, the Rapaports have been networking, texting and speaking to ensure that the resulting article sparkles with truth, unencumbered by the stereotypical mask the Orthodox community is usually seen with from the outside.

“This retrospective is great,” says Yosef, who, like his son, is a member of the Kossover kehillah. “I never knew how many stories we were involved with. This is a huge record.”

For the first time, the two are telling their story.

The interview took place this past Motzoei Shabbos at the Masbia office, two stories above 13th Avenue. It is decorated with huge maps of the five boroughs, with stickers denoting where poverty centers are in the city. Along one wall is a bank of yellowing newspaper clippings of articles the Rapaports have been involved in.

The most prominent is probably a story done by the New York Times several years ago about how the Satmar Rebbe, Rav Aharon Teitelbaum, developed a novel way of producing dry wheat for matzos. A front-page picture shows the rebbe, a floppy-hatted Yosef Rapaport at his side, standing in a wheat field in the hot Arizona sun.

Sender points to a picture of a Daily News story hanging on the wall.

“This was done by a melamed in Bobov, who had his students collect Holocaust stories from their grandparents,” he says. “I brought along a survivor who had a fascinating story, how he made matzos in a barrel in the camps. If we would have more human-interest stories of yeshivos doing things like this, it would push aside a lot of negative stories.”

Yosef concurs. “That is our modus operandi — a little bit of light pushes away a lot of darkness,” he says. “A human-interest story about our community dispels negative stories. There is a finite amount of newspaper space to cover our community. There’s only that many issues coming out in a period of time. They will definitely cover us. We are here. We are visible on every corner. People ask who we are. We make a lot of news.

“So, we will be covered. If we won’t provide our own news that is inspiring, or even just interesting enough to oust other, less interesting stories, then another story will be published. But if they do run a positive story about us, and a different story later comes up, they’ll say, “Hey, we just had a story about that community yesterday. We can’t do it right now.” And then in two weeks, it will be irrelevant.

“Either the community makes it its business to open itself up and cooperate for media stories, even if they’re just human interest, or it will just be more corruption stories, arrest. That is in the news regardless. It’s just that we’re fighting over space.”

Having the words “Orthodox Jews” in a headline is clickbait for newspapers and news sites. People have a fascination with our community.

Yosef: “Absolutely.”

Sender: “If someone calls in from Tennessee about a private school, no one is going to take their story. So how is it that someone who has a nonprofit who only goal is to bash yeshivos and put up billboards against yeshivos gets journalists excited over it? It’s only because it’s a certain type of people he’s talking about. Normally, it wouldn’t stick — it’s just another bad school. But when it’s yeshivos, it’s exciting.”

Yosef: “Change the name of the group from ‘Jews’ to ‘Chinese.’ Let’s say a person starts agitating that the Chinese don’t want to be educated. It will be surprising, but nobody will be shocked. The interesting story is, ‘Here are the People of the Book — they look different, behave differently, there’s anyway a fascination about them — and they don’t want an education? Let me read about it.’ There’s an immediate interest.

“Again, they’re fighting for readers’ eyeballs, for the click. This is a clickable story. Jews who don’t want to study? That is the subtext of the entire yeshiva education narrative, in my opinion.”

Sender: “There’s a laziness in every profession. People would just love to sit at their desk and not have to go out. Journalists just want the available stats at their ready — how many people were arrested. But that’s boring. But if it’s an Orthodox Jew, then it all changes. Look at the picture! He has payos! So this is low-hanging fruit for them. It’s available statistics and is fascinating. The trick is to get a better story for them.

“But it takes a lot more work. For example, you have to show them all the minhagim of Erev Pesach, how we kasher pots, put away sheimos. It’s a lot more legwork — they’re not sure they’re going to get access, it’s not familiar territory.”

Yosef: “Water will always find the lowest level. The reporter, the editor, will always look for the smallest headache to get the biggest bang. If it requires a little bit of effort, they’ll gravitate toward what takes the least amount of time.

“Here’s where we come in. We explain the fascinating aspects of our lives in a way that becomes fascinating to the subject. We pitch 50 stories and one gets picked up. And the pitching itself is very time consuming.

Sender: “Let me give you an example of a story I pitched: There are more babies born on Motzoei Yom Kippur than usual, because the fast is inducive.”

Yosef: “I have a son and three einiklach born Motzoei Yom Kippur.”

Sender: “It’s a fascinating fact. I pitched it a few times, but nobody wants it. There’s a laziness in following up and researching this. Reporters have to either be on the Brooklyn beat or the health beat in order to pick up on it. The largest hospital in Boro Park, Maimonides, is very wary of being seen as the local chassidishe hospital, so they wouldn’t cooperate.

“That’s how I do my pitches. I start a conversation with a reporter about Jewish concepts. If he or she aren’t interested, I just let it go.”

Yosef: “Our community is highly suspicious of media. Is it good or bad? I have no idea. But to a certain extent, it hinders our work.”

Sender: “Suspicious does not have to mean ‘don’t cooperate.’”

What was the first story you successfully pitched that made it into a story?

Sender: “I started with pitching reporters about Masbia. I felt comfortable with Masbia, since everything is very transparent — no skeletons in the closet, anybody can walk in, we serve everyone. That gave me the courage to freely engage reporters. Eventually, I took a poverty reporter around to Tomchei Shabbos, to Bnei Raphael.”

How many reporters do you have in your contact list?

Sender: “About 3,000, give or take. But each one has their own thing. You could have a Vox reporter who is only interested in health; you speak to her about measles.”

Yosef: “They frequently move around or get promoted, though. I’ll give you an example. When the Vizhnitzer Rebbe from Monsey became critically ill, I called Joe Berger of the New York Times and told him, ‘He should live until 120, but if something happens, there’s going to be an event that hasn’t been seen in years in New York. He’s an important figure.’ Berger already wrote the rebbe’s brother’s obituary, when the Vizhnitzer Rebbe of Bnei Brak was niftar. I told him, ‘Be prepared.’

“He pitched it to his editors, and they agreed that he should have the information in the drawer, so to speak. I spoke to the family, some of the rebbe’s sons and grandchildren. They immediately picked up on the importance of making a kiddush Hashem and cooperated in finding out the family history, the dates, where he lived, the chronology of his life, the number of descendants. They gave me whatever I asked for.

“The thing with Berger is, I never, ever exaggerate. I tell him facts. I may be wrong, but I don’t try to spin things. That’s poison for the New York Times. I told him, ‘Listen, you know that there’s a lot of tension in Rockland County between the Jews and the non-Jews. The rebbe was adamant about not getting into a fight with neighbors. Even when he was right, he was against getting into conflict.’ Those words ended up in the obit in my name.

“Ultimately, when the rebbe was niftar a few months later, even the Times was shocked at how many people showed up for the funeral. It was huge. When I went to be menachem avel, several of the Vizhnitzer rebbes pulled me aside and said, ‘Ah groisen yasher koach, we showed it to the doctors and they themselves didn’t know who they had been treating.’

“It also helped, because so many local residents were bothered by the big levayah. But they saw it in the Times, and saw that the rebbe believed in not having to win every fight. It took the edge off it.”

Sender: “Also, there were elements of the rebbe’s life that people tried pushing into the story that we were able to get dropped. It’s an art. We don’t say, ‘Don’t put that in.’ We give them other information that makes the other things seem insignificant to the reporter.”

Yosef: “Don’t forget, the New York Times doesn’t only speak to Yosef Rapaport or to Sendy Rapaport. They get a lot of stuff from other people. Some of it could be very irresponsible.”

“There’s another point to that story. Because it was so diligently done — it was a true masterpiece — the Times was able to post it a few minutes after he passed away, and every reporter in the world followed their lead. The Times loves that. They like to be the authoritative report that everybody links to and everybody cites.

“Once we got credibility with them, when the Skulener Rebbe was niftar last year, I called up the Times and said, ‘This is going to be bigger the Vizhnitzer Rebbe’s funeral. Maybe a lot bigger.’ This was in the city, it wasn’t on a Friday afternoon, and the Skulener Rebbe was seen as a more universal figure in the world of chassidim. But the Times did not believe me. How can a rebbe with such a small shul and no mosdos command such respect? He was never in the news, wasn’t involved in politics, and politicians didn’t visit him.”

According to Wikipedia, the Skulener Rebbe’s levayah was the eighth-largest in US history. Abraham Lincoln’s and Martin Luther King’s funerals may have been larger, lehavdil, but the rebbe had a larger crowd than most presidents.

Sender: “The Skulener Rebbe was niftar early in the evening and the levayah wasn’t until late the next morning. So there was enough time to do something good. I called up a few local politicians begging them to put out press releases to explain to the outside world what was going on.”

Yosef: “This is a very important point. You’re going to disturb half the city — don’t forget, the trains were delayed because of the funeral and two police officers were injured in the crowds — and you’ve got nothing to say? There’s a certain disrespect about that. We cannot stop the whole city and not explain ourselves. Things are changing.

“I know that in Lakewood, they now publicize, ‘A disruption is about to happen, we’re sorry about it, but it’s going to be over at this and this time. Please understand.’ Just explain yourself — ‘Hello, Mr. Neighbor, I know I’m going to disturb your life, here’s what’s going on.’ Ninety percent of your problems are going to go away with that.”

Sender: “Back to what we were talking about. I told everyone, ‘This is going to be big.’ But they searched for ‘Skulener Rebbe’ online and nothing came up, so they didn’t believe me. The only reporter who responded to my pitch was a local Bklynr reporter, a woman. I compiled a list of people who were close to the rebbe — he has a lot of people who consider themselves his adopted children — and gave it to her.

“I took the reporter at 9:00 in the morning to someone’s home, and the person showed her his chasunah album, showed how the rebbe was his mesader kiddushin. I then took her to Masbia and left her there all day. I gave her free Wi-Fi, meals. She was there for almost 12 hours.”

Yosef: “My son called me that he had to go out and I should take over. I went over, said hello. I spent a few hours with her, explaining things.

“This story has an interesting postscript. A few weeks ago, I got a call from this same reporter. BuzzFeed hired her to be its congressional reporter. Again — a local Brooklyn reporter working for a small website was hired by BuzzFeed to be their national reporter on Congress. She wanted to hear about Jerry Nadler, who represents parts of Boro Park.

“I ask you, when frum people are going to have an issue in Congress or we’ll want coverage, do I now have a friend whom I can talk to? I definitely do. The same goes for all of our work. It’s all about ‘shelach lachmecha’ — cast out a net and it comes to use down the road.”

Sender: “I’ll give you another example. The videographer who covered the Iran nuclear deal for the Wall Street Journal was previously a student at Columbia School of Journalism. She actually did her work for her professor on Masbia. I have a dozen or two of these students come here each year. I know these reports are not going to be made public and it might seem like a waste of time to cooperate with them. But they go into my rolodex.

“I once did a story on Masbia with a reporter for News12. That reporter ended up covering Trump during the entire campaign, for NBC. Remember the famous ‘NBC Fake News reporter’? That reporter had once done a story on Masbia.”

Yosef: “There’s another aspect that everyone in our community needs to know — the reporter is a struggling schlock. They make meager wages. They’re hoping to break a story, like all those kids practicing basketball late at night in hopes of being one out of 100,000 that will play professional basketball in college, and one out of those will make the NBA.

“In a certain sense, reporters are used by multinational news organizations. Once you know their situation, it’s kind of crazy to look at them as if they want to demonize you. No — they just want a good story from you. They want clickbait. The challenge for me and my son is, can we provide clean clickbait? I say yes. We are a very interesting group of people. We are fascinating. We are actually bored by ourselves. For example, a message I sent out yesterday of my freshly baked challos is boring — but only to me.”

What was the context for that tweet?

“I’m a former baker. I used to manage the bakery for my late shver, Zechariah’s Bread, Brauner’s Bakery, right here in Boro Park. I learned the art of baking challos; I put my mind into it. I moved on in life, but I still live across the bakery and still bake a nice batch of challos for my family every week.

“We believe that, if done in the right way, social media can have a very good impact. I do online exactly what I do out in the street. I state my opinion — I’m the world’s biggest expert on my opinion — and also try to do things that evoke Jewish life, warmth. You may not agree with my politics, but I’ll post pictures of my collection of old machzorim, my challos, kreplach, regular Jewish life. People get very moved; I see it by who likes it.

“I have a very large following of editors and reporters from all over the world. My tweets generate a lot of calls that result in articles. I took around reporters from Al Jazeera, the BBC. It all came from Twitter. It’s also why Agudah hired me as their media consultant.

“I think I’ve had a few successes in this. I’ll give you an example: Moster put out his report claiming that 39 yeshivos don’t provide a good education — and one of those he cited was an address that happened to be a butcher shop in Williamsburg.

“So I went to Williamsburg and recorded a video, in which I ask the store manager if the pieces of meat were getting a good secular education. That went viral.”

Did the manager give you a hard time?

“No. His boss told him to cooperate.

“This touches on a very important point I’d like to mention, especially now when we’re fighting over education. I have a very hard time when I ask people, “Please, let me into the yeshiva, let me take pictures of the talmidim learning.” It’s a herculean struggle, when people should be jumping at it. There’s this deep suspicion about media, and people are scared.

“It shouldn’t be like that. I’d rather have a ‘warts-and-all’ article than one that only shows us in a good light. It never works in real media. We’re all human beings, we all have the same red blood running through our veins. All that’s required is that we show we have the same flaws and the same blessings that everybody else has. If we’re just like everybody else, then people can emphasize with us.

“We may have our special beliefs, but all we have to show is that we’re normal, with flaws. People think of us as monsters. People ask us, why don’t we show the media Hatzolah and our great chesed organizations? No. Show them the fruit tree.”

I’m looking a New York Times article. There’s a picture of a mulberry tree blocking the entrance of a house in Boro Park. The article says that it cost the owner $100,000 to avoid chopping down the tree, just to keep to the Jewish tradition.

Sender: “We actually went around the block where there was a different tree that the owner refused to chop down. He is a simple baal habayis — he does bells, wiring, low voltage stuff. He put metal steps on his house so the tree shouldn’t cut into it. His picture didn’t make it to the paper. I also took the reporter to Shloimy’s Bakery on 12th Avenue, which has a berry tree growing right in middle of the store.

“An interesting side story here is that I also took the reporter to Rav Gavriel Zinner, who agreed to talk to her. He showed the reporter that he had written a teshuvah for Satmar camp, where bears were getting attracted to an apple tree. He allowed them to chop that down, since he said that trees take second place to human beings.

“In the New York Times world, there are a lot of liberals who consider themselves tree lovers. They see a story such as this, the chossid spending $100,000 to save a tree, and it has a certain ring to it. Also, that reporter was later the education report for the Times and covered yeshivos.”

Yosef: “I look at that story in a different way and I think you’d agree. If somebody would come to the editor a week after this story with a story of a scandal, won’t the editor say, “Hey, we did a Boro Park story already”? The Times serves six or seven states. Why should they write about us so often? Besides being a kiddush Hashem, this story helps push other things out.”

It would have to be a significant scandal to justify writing about it.

Sender: “I’m not against having scandal stories. You can’t blame the media for reporting it. What I blame is, the lopsidedness when we don’t give them other stories.

“You can quote me on this — one of the biggest mistakes that the Kinnus Klal Yisroel made a few years ago was not being more in control of how to handle press. This was about the internet, and very few people outside the community understood what we were doing. There was no press release and non-Jewish press was not allowed into the stadium. What ended up happening was that one person standing outside because he couldn’t get a ticket gave the money quote that was run by the media. He ended up being the frum person who gave the quote for the New York Times video.”

Yosef: “What do you expect? You can’t have 30,000 people come to one place and not have reporters questioning what it was all about. Not having a well-oiled press operation was a massive, massive mistake.

“The converse was what we did at the last Siyum HaShas. It was a massive success. We woke up at 4:00 in the morning and took a reporter to Agudas Yisroel Beis Binyonim so he could hear a shiur. We showed him Leon Goldenberg, a wealthy real estate guy, making coffee for everyone.”

Sender: “The thing about this is that every reporter needs that type of attention. We can’t do this for one and not for the other.”

Yosef: “All this comes at a big cost to us. We take reporters out to steak dinners. We take them on Ubers all across the city. Our hobby is to make a kiddush Hashem.

“I know there will be a storyline before the upcoming siyum — what about women, don’t women learn Gemara? Why are we seating the women all the way up there, away from the action? Reporters will be out looking for irreligious Jews also making a siyum, or women making an alternative siyum. The media has a long list of agendas to every story.

“You know what the success will depend on? If we’re going to be able to provide more interesting material than the other stuff.”

Sender: “For example, after we put in all the work into a WNYC reporter for the Siyum HaShas, his report was mentioned on the Brian Lehrer Show — and then he brought on Jane Eisner, the then-editor of the Forward. She considers herself egalitarian, and always spoke against our community.”

The Times considers itself to be more intellectual, and if you get in one story about the community, it might push aside the others. What about the New York Post? The Daily News?

Sender: “The Daily News used to have a Brooklyn bureau, but it has since closed. I used to walk in there on Erev Rosh Hashanah with a huge amount of honey cake, or on Chanukah with a lot of donuts, and make nice with the reporters. It was an opener, an excuse to come in and say hello. But it helped bring some nice stories.

“In 2011, there was a huge spread in the Daily News, across two pages, of the Brauner family’s bakery in Boro Park. Today they are almost gone, but there are new websites, such as The City.”

Yosef: “Sometimes, we have a dilemma. We know there’s a bad story coming, but the reporter needs some help, such as a photograph. Should we help him? The answer is yes. Why? Because the important thing is that we should be a dependable source. You can’t decide when you’re going to help and when you won’t.”

Sender: “There’s also damage control. If there’s going to be a bad story, then at least have a decent picture.”

For many years, there was a Samuel Heilman, who would provide information about our community to the media. The quotes were usually not complimentary and sometimes not true. You don’t see him in the press anymore.

Yosef: “If you search for his name online, he was always the go-to guy to comment on the chareidi community. He’s an anthropologist, right? He studies the community from the outside, so he must be an authority, right? But he was always terrible, besides for being inaccurate.

“For example, he told Channel 10 in Israel that in Boro Park, Yiddish is not in use, only in Williamsburg. I took out a New York Times reporter and showed her all the signs that are in Yiddish. ‘Somebody is wasting their money,’ I said. ‘He hasn’t been here in many years. Boro Park has undergone a tremendous transformation in the past 10 years, but he’s still commenting. He still thinks Boro Park is the same place as it was 30 years ago.’

“All this plants doubts in reporters’ heads. If he has been inaccurate about one thing, what else is he not telling the truth about? And why do you need someone from outside the community to speak about the community?

“I asked the reporter, ‘Why do you continue quoting him?’ And the answer was, ‘Suggest somebody else. We need someone to talk to.’

“I didn’t want to say, ‘I’ll give you quotes.’ Yet slowly but surely, you’re going to find articles with Rapaport and without Heilman. That is a small achievement.

“I used to ride into Manhattan every day for work, and would read the Times on the train. I realized that the Times would first report on a story, and then the little guys would pick up on it. They also wanted to report on the story. I started to realize that the Times is the originator, and it then goes on to radio or television. As the internet developed, the cycle became much quicker.

“I saw that reporters do each other favors. If one quoted someone for their story, that person will be contacted by other reporters for their stories too. Every story gets amplified very quickly. So I get quoted by the Times, and then other outlets will also contact me to talk.”

So how do you actually counter negative news?

Sender: “The way reporters work today is with data. For example, they’ll take data from Section 8 and overlay it with certain neighborhoods and see which communities are using it more. This has often been used against us. You hear people saying that Williamsburg or Kiryas Joel has more people on Section 8 than any other neighborhood in the city or the country.

“But here’s the funny thing. The narrative about Section 8 is that the program is not working as intended. The rich building owner in Park Slope will not allow a Section 8 tenant in — it’s not their type, they’re scared they won’t pay the rent, they won’t be able to evict them. They run away from it. The city is trying to make that illegal, but this is the story right now.

“The only place where the wealthy homeowner is willing to let in the poor Section 8 voucher holder is the frum community. Moishe Oisher has no problem letting in the poor person, having his kids play with his kids. There’s no class divide. So the only place in the entire country where Section 8 really works, where the subsidy seamlessly gets you into society, is in Boro Park and Williamsburg. That’s why Williamsburg has so many Section 8 vouchers.”

Yosef: “This is brilliant. Because the other interpretation is that the Jews are a wily people and know how to work the system to fraudulently get Section 8.”

Sender: “It may be that some people game the system. But not more than in any other community and not enough to make a dent in the data.

“The reason there’s such an appetite among frum Jews to get Section 8 and not anywhere else is because the average person living in a homeless shelter cannot get an apartment in his community. The yungerman in Williamsburg could.

“Interestingly, WNYC teamed up with the Daily News to report on Section 8. I spoke to a WNYC reporter about this, but not to the Daily News reporter. You could see that their reports were very different. The WNYC reporter was a lot more balanced.”

Yosef: “When we could get a good story in, great. But even if it’s just a human-interest story, I am denying space for the negative. Why? Because I am more interesting.”