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Saturday, December 27, 2008

If It Involves Jews, Chabad’s Tiny but Far-Flung News Organization Is on It

When the news broke on Thursday of a freakish traffic accident that injured several people at the Chanukah Wonderland workshop run by the Lubavitch community of Woodmere, on Long Island, the story was picked up by the usual suspects: Newsday, The Daily News, The New York Post and The Associated Press. It also happened to be that day’s top North American offering of a much smaller — and somewhat more specialized — journalistic venture: Chabad.org News.

Written and produced from a small home office in Israel by a husband-and-wife team, Chabad.org News is a nonprofit international reporting operation that focuses on stories of interest to Jews — and more specifically the Lubavitch community — around the globe. On any given day, it might cover the opening of a new kosher cafeteria at the University of Miami or a fatal bus crash in Eilat, Israel. Its headlines reflect the tenets of the movement and the interests of its readers: “Light Again Issues Forth from Mumbai Chabad House” or “Mountaintop Circumcision a First for Southeastern Peru.”

“It really runs the gamut, from identifying new trends in Jewish outreach being trailblazed by Lubavitch emissaries worldwide, to exploring what’s going on in far-flung Jewish communities,” said Rabbi Zalman Shmotkin, a spokesman for the Lubavitch movement and a key player in the news team’s Brooklyn office.

While Rabbi Shmotkin oversees logistics in New York, the editor and tireless chief writer of Chabad.org News is a journalist, Rabbi Joshua Runyan, formerly of The Jewish Exponent in Philadelphia, whose byline runs on perhaps 90 percent of the Web site’s stories.

Rabbi Runyan is a busy man. On a Tuesday morning, for example, he could easily find himself composing a story on the first Torah scroll ever to be written in the state of Arkansas and the following afternoon be editing a dispatch on a menorah-lighting ceremony in Calgary, Alberta, filed by his wife, Tamar. (The Runyans could not be reached for comment as, by Friday morning in New York, the Jewish Sabbath had begun in Israel.)

With 10 to 12 stringers throughout the world from New York to Australia, Chabad.org News is truly global in its reach. It relies on tips and information passed on by the movement’s many emissaries as well as leg and phone work conducted by members of the Media Center based in the Lubavitch world headquarters at 770 Eastern Parkway in Crown Heights, Brooklyn.

The movement, which has an extensive public relations operation, has cultivated useful relationships with newspaper and television reporters who are often happy to pass on information about breaking news in exchange for, say, a good tip on a feature story, Rabbi Shmotkin said.

The Woodmere crash was an example of that. A local television reporter tipped off the Lubavitch office so that Rabbi Runyan, working from Israel, knew to call officials on Long Island in time to bang out a dispatch posted online not quite two hours after the crash occurred.

Chabad.org News sprang into action last month during the terrorist siege of two hotels and the Lubavitch community center in Mumbai. Feeds were collected from a Lubavitch emissary arriving from Goa; tips were received from a friendly CNN reporter on the scene; phone calls were made from Brooklyn to various government officials; and the whole package was sent to Rabbi Runyan, who is still writing updates on the story (“Menorah Shines from Scene of Mumbai’s Prior Devastation”) weeks later.

With such diverse sources of information, Chabad.org News stands at the intersection of professional reporting, citizen journalism and movement boosterism, apparently pleased to have its feet in all three worlds. The stickiest question may be how to cover the institution that spawned it. While the outfit’s stories are broad in scope (“Jewish Community in Iowa City Joins Sandbagging Effort”), they are rarely, if ever, critical of the Lubavitch movement itself.

“Obviously, it’s a house organ to some extent,” said Ari Goldman, a professor at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and a self-described fan who receives regular RSS feeds of stories from Chabad.org News. “But I also think it’s a reliable source of information.”

So, apparently, do numerous others. Beyond the stories it publishes online, the outfit offers a twice-weekly e-mail newsletter to 85,000 subscribers and automatically “streamlines content” to the Web sites of more than 1,000 local Chabad affiliates from Paris to Pittsburgh.

“It’s similar to the A.P.,” Rabbi Shmotkin said. “But much more integrated.”

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