As a thousand Jews from South Florida found shelter from the storm in Atlanta, we drove to Nashville, Tenn., on highways crowded with vehicles from a state temporarily devoid of sunshine, for the Religion News Association annual meeting.
I looked forward to renewing acquaintances with this exceptionally collegial group. As a new member, my wife, a television journalist and interfaith activist, would meet people in both fields.
The journalists of RNA deliver insightful and nuanced coverage of the most personal of subjects.
Three days of panel discussions brought them together with clergy and lay leaders from multiple faiths and denominations, researchers, scholars and theologians, and advocates for causes ranging from “religious freedom” legislation to freedom from religion altogether.
The sessions can be enlightening. For example, I was unfamiliar with the “new revivalist” movement in evangelical Christianity, but nonetheless found the session on that subject riveting.
This year’s RNA meeting came a month after white supremacists made Charlottesville, Va., a historical reference point.
The moderator for a panel focused on covering religious hate raised the question of whether the anti-Jewish aspect of the story had been undercovered — something I had considered as events in Charlottesville unfolded.
“When I heard the news, when I heard the chants and the signs, ‘Jews will not replace us,’ I felt like I had been punched,” said Professor Leonard Saxe, the director of the Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies and the Steinhardt Social Research Institute at Brandeis University. “When I thought about it for a minute or two, I realized the United States, the country, had not suddenly become anti-Semitic. These were a very, very small group of people.”
He added, “Religion reporters have a special obligation to help us understand more of the context and not allow individuals who want to say hateful things to be given a megaphone.”
Similarly, Professor Simran Jeet Singh of Trinity University, the Henry R. Luce fellow for religion in international affairs at New York University‘s Center for Religion and Media, said that “reporting on religious interaction is proactive,” while “reporting on incidents is reactive.”
As might be expected, a fair number of the journalists who make up RNA are Jewish.
On the job, they are journalists first.
There was, though, an occasion when some of the journalists who are Jewish gathered because they are Jews. Representatives from the communications staff of the Chabad-Lubavitch movement hosted a Shabbat dinner.
It should be noted that the meals at RNA are sponsored by organizations, the majority being Christian, that use the opportunity to promote their work.
The protocols of a Shabbat dinner, as practiced by observant Jews, were followed.
For a couple of hours, they — we — gathered as both journalists and Jews, and our conversation was as much about the latter identification as the former.
This was, at least to the memory of the most senior member present, who has attended for more than 30 years, the first Shabbat dinner held at an RNA meeting. Judging from conversations afterward, it may have begun a tradition.
Insofar as I could tell, Chabad-Lubavitch, known for its outreach within the Jewish world, was the only Jewish organization with boots on the ground at RNA.
Exhibitors at the meeting included Baha’i and Hindu groups, along with Christian seminaries and a variety of religious and secular research and public policy bodies.
Materials promoting PJ Library, the Jewish children’s book program, were included in the swag bags RNA members received at registration, the work of West End Strategy Team, a public relations firm with numerous Jewish clients.
Not in attendance were the major religious, communal and political organizations, including those best known by their initials, that see themselves as representing parts or all of American Jewry and that might want to increase their media coverage.
Beyond matters of faith, Jewish organizations engage in a myriad of cultural, social and political realms. RNA offers them opportunities for interaction with a large number of journalists who cover the depth and breadth of religious life in America.
Next year’s meeting is in Columbus, Ohio.