The word “eclectic” is the one that jumps out when exploring the world of Rochel Sylvetsky—her upbringing, education and career path. She is one of the editors of, and a seasoned reporter and columnist for, the English-language Religious Zionist news site Arutz Sheva (Israel National News).
Sylvetsky was raised in New York’s Lower East Side in a family whose strongly Chassidic/Yeshivish lifestyle dwelled together in peace with a vibrant dedication to modern Israel. “In our house,” she says, “the world was seen through the lens of Yiddishkeit, and we saw the State of Israel as a miracle, despite it being run by secular Jews.”
Sylvetsky graduated summa cum laude from City College of New York with degrees in mathematics and English, and from Yeshiva University’s Teacher’s College. The first turning point in her life occurred when YU sent her to Machon Gold for a semester, and her love of Tanach was enriched by teachers like Nechama Leibowitz, Rabbi Yehoshua Bachrach and Rabbi Adin Even-Israel Steinsaltz. After making aliyah in 1971, she completed an MA in Jewish education at Touro Jerusalem.
The next turning point was a painful one. In 1964 she married Dov Sylvetsky, and he was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s disease in 1969, two years before their aliyah. “He underwent a grueling new treatment which, baruch Hashem, worked, but made it necessary for me to curtail plans to continue my education,” says Sylvetsky. “We made aliyah, and he went on to found the Emunah College of Art and Technology—a religious framework for young women that was not a teacher-training program, an initiative for which he received many awards. He did not allow recurring after-effects or periodic surgery to affect his functioning—for thirty-five years.” (Her husband has since passed away.)
The Sylvetskys came to Israel with two small children, eventually settling in Beit El in response to Menachem Begin’s call to settle Judea and Samaria. “We were one of the first fifteen families there, living in an army camp with no running water.” Several years later they returned to Jerusalem to care for elderly parents who had come on aliyah.
For many years Sylvetsky was involved in the advancement of general and Jewish education in schools in Jerusalem and in development towns, and in the Ministry of Education. She was elected to the National Religious Party Secretariat and served as chairperson of Emunah Israel. She also directed a youth village for seven years, during which time she was a member of the Zevulun Regional Council.
She became a mover and shaker in the world of Orthodox journalism when her letter-writing activism caught the eye of Arutz Sheva and the news site offered her a position. Currently, she serves as senior consultant to Arutz Sheva’s English-language site and as op-ed and Judaism editor. Her passion for Am Yisrael and Eretz Yisrael and for thinking outside the box has contributed to her success; the site has an influence far beyond the pond of Israel. From its humble beginnings as a radio station operating from a floating studio aboard a vessel anchored off the Tel Aviv coast just outside Israeli territorial waters, Arutz Sheva has grown significantly. Today it is a media network with online news in Hebrew, English and Russian, offering live streaming radio, video and free podcasts. It also publishes a highly popular weekly newspaper, B’Sheva. Its readership includes Jews and non-Jews, Evangelists, VIPs and politicians. Readers are found all over the world—in Israel, North America, England, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, even Jamaica. “If we editorialize, we are sure to hear from someone, so it keeps us on our toes,” she says.
“I have felt happy with every career choice in my life, and always tried to be where the needs are, but this current period is the most rewarding to my neshamah, my inner self. I feel that it is crucial to get out the truth about Israel, about Religious Zionists in Israel, about Judea and Samaria and their wonderful communities, about real Modern Orthodoxy [the derech of Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik], to fight what I consider the good fight in a milieu where the media is not only the message, it also has the power to create the message.” The goal, she says, is to reach those without preconceived opinions who are getting their information from media sources that are not giving them all the facts, and others who already have pro-Israel views.
“If there are incidents between Gaza and Israel, we know the IDF tells the real story and experience has proven that the PA sources fabricate as they go along. We call terrorists by that name, not ‘militants’ or ‘freedom fighters,’ and we write ‘1949 Armistice Lines,’ not ‘borders;’ ‘Jewish communities,’ not ‘settlements.’
“We get out the positive truth about Israel—how miraculous it is, the amazing growth of Torah learning, the hesder yeshivah boys, Israeli innovations and hi-tech, Israel providing help to countries around the world, cultural events, and how we manage to flourish despite all the hatred. We try to show the spiritual aspect of nationalism, as Rabbi Avraham Yitzchak HaCohen Kook saw it. The Religious Zionist voice is heard through our interviews with leading Religious Zionist yeshivah rabbis, politicians and experts. We are not out to ‘get’ anybody, but to expose those who are anti-Semitic and those who are anti-Israel . . . . While we cite the views of the various Orthodox sectors, from the liberal to Chareidi, it is obvious to readers that we have our own Torah-oriented Religious Zionist ethos and that we are in the rightist camp.”
The controversial issues can be about alternative lifestyles and LGBTQ, conversion, feminism in Judaic ritual and prayers at the Kotel. Sylvetsky is not shy about stating her opinion. “Despite the fake news to the contrary, there is already a place for mixed prayers at the Kotel. It is empty most of the time. The real conflict is over recognition. The same [is true] for conversion.”
In general, using facts and not editorializing, she says, is one of the biggest challenges in presenting the truth behind a message. “China’s prime minister chastised Israel for not creating a PA state in April of 2017. Our article quoted him, but added the factual information about the eighteen unresolved border disputes going on right now between China and its neighbors, its takeover of Tibet and conflict over the South China Sea. We also remind readers of the chaos in the Arab world at present, of the negative results of the Gush Katif evacuation, and other relevant background facts.”
Among her pet peeves are “politicians who crave media exposure and constantly act in superficial ways that put them in the media, and the blatant misuse of media power.”
It was Sylvetsky who, seven years ago, noticed a strange rise in seemingly unrelated anti-Semitic incidents being reported by news agencies, and she gave one reporter the job of seeking out stories. “Unfortunately, we were right, and the constant trickle of incidents of blatant anti-Semitism, and anti-Semitism masquerading as anti-Zionism, became a flood. We were the first to call attention to it and fight it.”
Arutz Sheva is firmly embedded in her life now. She rises very early, davens, checks the site at least three or four times in the course of the day to see if any corrections or background information is necessary, puts up about four op-eds and four articles on Judaism a day on the front page, swims three times a week, spends the afternoon writing her own articles, enjoys her grandchildren and more. She reviews the site again before she retires.
She also studies Tanach, and last year studied Yiddish literature and humor; this year she’ll be studying Israeli poets. She enjoys listening to the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra and tries to do as much chesed as she can. The first five years she worked for Arutz Sheva, she did it as a volunteer “as my Zionist contribution to the State.” When I ask about her most challenging moments as a journalist, her dilemmas, and the difficulty of putting personal feelings aside, Sylvetsky breaks down and cries.
“Every report on a terror act is emotionally draining. We are the closest to those who suffer from terror in Yesha [Judea and Samaria]. The most difficult moment of my journalistic career was turning on the computer immediately after Havdalah, and seeing the reports sent to me with news and photos of the Friday night Fogel family massacre in 2011. That led to a watershed decision at Arutz Sheva. We had never shown photos of violence, being afraid to hurt the families, and we didn’t want to give the terrorists the satisfaction, but we asked Rabbi Zalman Baruch Melamed, rosh yeshivah of the Beit El yeshivah—he and his wife Shulamit are founders of Arutz Sheva—whether we could change our policy, and he decided it was time the world, including the Jewish world, saw with whom we are dealing. That slaughter of a baby, although not the first or last since then, unfortunately, crossed a line of barbaric cruelty.
While we cite the views of the various Orthodox sectors, from the liberal to Chareidi, it is obvious to readers that we have our own Torah-oriented Religious Zionist ethos.
“It was also hard to report on Ayala Shapira, severely burned by a firebomb two years ago, because she is my sister’s great-granddaughter. The Litman family murder in 2015 was another tragedy, but there was also great happiness when we filmed the wedding and showed the thousands who came to rejoice. Israel is mishpachah. Literally and figuratively.” [Sarah Techiya Litman, the daughter of the terror victim, married Ariel Biegel shortly after the attack and invited “all of Klal Yisrael” to the wedding.]
Sylvetsky says that the most fascinating people she has met in her journalistic career are “some of our intrepid and talented op-ed writers” and gives examples. “The journalist Giulio Meotti of Italy. He is not Jewish; he loves Israel and tells Europe the truth about Israel and the truth about Europe. He has been threatened and vilified and continues. Jack Engelhard, who is a famous and brilliant writer, has a gift for getting to the main points in a fascinating manner; Mark Langfan, who is knowledgeable, dedicated and unbelievably prophetic when it comes to the Middle East; and the highly sophisticated David Singer from Australia and others.”
Throughout her career, Sylvetsky has had to make tough decisions; she didn’t want an impossible balancing act. “I always worked out hours so I was home when my children arrived, unless Dov was there. I loved being with them more than having a full-time career and don’t regret it.”
She feels that in some of the positions that she held throughout her varied career, she was aware of the fact that there were almost no women in the field. “I felt I had to prove myself, but not at Arutz Sheva, which, as I mentioned, was founded and overseen by Rabbanit Shulamit Melamed, one special person! Uzi Baruch is the editor-in-chief of the Hebrew and English sites, and English-language site assistant editor is Yoni Kempinski. We work together as colleagues and friends.” Sylvetsky thinks that being a woman may make her more understanding of the younger writers. “I feel as though they are my children.”
When asked for examples of male chauvinism in other venues, she says, “When I first met the youth village lawyer in his office, the new CFO accompanied me. The lawyer assumed I was the CFO’s secretary [when I was actually the CEO] and handed me a notepad to take minutes. He began talking to the embarrassed CFO, who finally choked out the words, ‘“She’s the CEO, not me.’”
“And in the National Religious Party Secretariat, where I was the only woman, I mentioned something about cost-benefit analysis at a budget meeting. They looked at me and said, “What do you know about things like that?” At the time, I was overseeing an enterprise with a 160-million-shekel budget, a larger budget than most of them had ever managed; moreover, I had pulled Emunah out of debt [it was 40 million shekels in the red].” But she adds now, generously, “Of course, things have changed everywhere.”
What are the long-term prospects for Orthodox women in religious journalism? I ask.
“The sky’s the limit. All we need is the talent and the will.”
Toby Klein Greenwald is a journalist, educator and community theater director.