Old Fashioned Jew, Old Fashioned Reporter
Borsuk, Alan J., Nieman Reports
Perhaps I was too flip in my answer to a frequent question. People asked how the editors at The Milwaukee Journal dealt with the fact that I observe the Jewish Sabbath in its most traditional ways, which means, among other things, that I don't work on Friday nights or Saturdays. My standard answer was that it had never been a problem, but I'd find out for sure the day a plane landed nose first at the airport two hours before Friday sunset.
It was 3:21 p.m. on Friday, September 6, 1985, when a Midwest Express DC-9 crashed on take-off at Milwaukee Mitchell Airport, killing all 31 on board. It was 3 1/2 hours until the start of the Sabbath.
As soon as word got to the newsroom, an editor told me to get set to do rewrite on the main story. That was often my role on big stories; I was (and am) pretty decent at handling a lot of information coming at me.
I told him I was good until 6 o'clock. He didn't balk, nor did any of the editors above him.
In some ways, it was hard for me to pull out of such a big story -- a major plane crash right here? My adrenaline and reporting style told me to work straight through the night, until the next afternoon's paper was done. And I'm sure it was harder for my bosses to accept my saying it. When duty calls like that, you aren't supposed to say no.
I wrote a story for out late afternoon edition (in fact, it won awards that year for deadline work). There were plenty of good people eager to sit down in my place when I left at 6. I called in after sundown on Saturday night, went back to work on the plane crash and stayed with it steadily, along with another reporter, for almost six months.
Every editor involved in that decision is gone from what is now The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, but I am still appreciative for their acceptance and understanding. Every boss I have had since then has followed their example. That is one of the central reasons why I am still loyal to the newspaper.
For the first decade that I worked at the paper, I didn't adhere to the practices of Orthodox Judaism. It's a long story how and why my wife and I changed our ways, and it's not necessary to tell it here. But we are good examples of what is known in the American Jewish world as baal teshuvahs -- a small but significant wave of people who have become Orthodox as adults.
I admit it's an odd thing for a newspaper reporter or editor to be, for many reasons.
While there are many Jews in the news business, some who follows the traditional religious practices to the degree I do is close to unique. I'm doubtful many news organizations would knowingly welcome a person like me -- too many schedule and assignment restrictions would probably be the cited reason -- even though I think I provide a pretty good piece of evidence that things can be worked out well.
But my religious life does shape some of the important parts of how I do my job. In some cases, this means some constraints for my editors, colleagues and myself. I would argue, on the other hand, that in significant ways, the impact is beneficial.
Scheduling is the best example of the tangible aspects of working out religious/professional issues. Not working from roughly sundown Friday to sundown Saturday means I wouldn't be a good person to assign to the college football run since the action is almost always on Saturday afternoons. There are plenty of other examples.
Furthermore, I don't answer the phone on the Sabbath or major holidays, so I can't be reached by the copy desk for last minute questions on a piece for Sunday. My editors know that means we need to iron things out by Friday afternoon.
I don't do some other conventional things, like eating out (Milwaukee has only two kosher restaurants). So I'm not much on the lunch scene, either socially or professionally.
But these are practical matters that almost never cause genuine difficulty. …