Flipping through the television channels here in Israel one recent evening, I decided to catch up on the news, so I turned to Channel 2?s nightly 8pm broadcast, sat back on the couch, and started watching. The usual array of diplomatic, security and economic updates paraded by on screen, all delivered by the young, hip and relatively attractive reporters who seem to dominate television journalism the world over. Some come across as highly polished and professional, inspiring the viewer with confidence and trust in the information they convey, whereas others appear to have been chosen primarily for reasons of beauty, rather than brainpower.



And then, a few minutes into the program, came a report on the latest happenings along Israel?s northern border with Lebanon. As the camera moved in for a close-up, the reporter came into view, his bearded and bespectacled appearance standing out in sharp contrast to those of his colleagues on the station?s news team. And when he turned to point to a site off in the distance, still another surprise awaited the viewing audience - the outline of the large knitted yarmulke perched on the back of his head was clearly visible.



Menachem Horovitz, who has been reporting on Israel?s north for Channel 2 for many years, is one of the few religious journalists working on either of the two main Israeli television stations. There are, of course, others, such as Nissim Mishal, who hosts a popular news and current affairs program on Channel 1 called ?Mishal Cham? (?Hot Mishal? in Hebrew), and Benny Liss, who reports on events taking place in Judea, Samaria and Gaza for Israel Television.



That observant Jews obviously proud of their religiosity are counted among the nation?s top journalists is, needless to say, a heartwarming development. It indicates that Jews loyal to Torah and mitzvot have begun to make inroads into the larger scheme of Israeli culture. And this phenomenon is by no means limited to the small screen, either. Nadav Shragai, a religious Jerusalemite, writes for the far-left Ha?aretz daily, while Jewish settler Uri Orbach co-hosts a popular program on Israel Army Radio every morning.



Unfortunately, though, the handful of names listed above are more indicative of the exception, rather than the rule, because for the most part, secular and non-religious Israelis continue to overwhelmingly dominate the electronic and printed media. The fact that a mere minyan or two worth of religious Jews are to be found in prominent reporting positions, out of the untold hundreds of Israelis working in the field, is even more bothersome when one considers the country?s demographics. With Orthodox Jews constituting approximately a fifth of Israel?s Jewish population, it would seem reasonable to assume that a similar percentage would prevail in the media as well. But in truth, the number is far, far smaller. The same can also be said for the other components of modern Israel?s culture, such as literature, music and the arts, where religious Jews are vastly under-represented in nearly every field. These popular forms of expression, which help to shape and mold the consciousness of the nation, even as they serve as an important outlet for its creative energies, remain areas largely unsettled by observant Jews.



The question, of course, that comes to mind almost immediately is: So what? Does it really matter how many religious Jews are among the State of Israel?s cultural elite? Does anyone really care if the people writing the books, composing the songs and painting the pictures can learn a page of Talmud or shake a lulav?



After all, it is easy to look around at Israel?s burgeoning religious sector and swell up with pride. Never before in history have so many yeshivas and houses of learning graced the length and breadth of the Land of Israel. Never before have so many young men and women devoted so many of their waking hours to plumbing the ancient texts that form the core of our beliefs. From institutes devoted to finding halachic solutions to technological dilemmas, to organizations promoting the study of the Temple sacrifices, Judaism and Jewish law are clearly more popular than ever before. So, you might be thinking, let?s just keep focusing solely on Torah, and let the non-religious enjoy their poetry and novellas in peace.



But such an approach is not only shortsighted - it is antithetical to our very beliefs.



As religious Jews straddling two worlds ? the spiritual and the material ? we know that our mission is to infuse the latter with more of the former. And a key means of achieving this is to use all the tools at our disposal ? be they the pen, the paintbrush or even the Pentium chip.



It is easy to sit back and complain about the lack of Jewish values in Israeli society, the superficiality and emptiness that typify much of its culture, and the sorry lack of upstanding role models for Israeli youth to emulate. But such criticism rings a bit hollow when we consign ourselves to the sidelines and do little to change the situation for the better.



The only way to influence the game on the field is not to sit in the stands and yell at the players, but to join the team and play ball.



Emunah is one of a handful of organizations that not only recognizes this challenge, but is actively engaged in tackling it. Projects such as the Emunah College, and the Torah and Arts High School, will go a long way toward training the next generation of religious Israeli artists, musicians and writers. It will infuse them with Jewish values and a loyalty to Torah, even as they learn the intricacies of crafting a work of art, or fashioning a piece of sculpture.



There is a saying in Washington, DC ? ?people are policy?, which means that the people one appoints to positions of power and influence, and the beliefs and values they bring to the job, eventually count for more than the policy vision or guidelines that a leader lays out. The same holds true for culture. If the people shaping it are guided by Torah values, then the output they produce will reflect that, and that output will then affect the consumers of culture throughout society. But if religious Jews ignore these areas, someone else will fill the void, and we should not then be surprised if the values and ideals they promote are not always to our liking.



Culture matters because it has a bearing on society. In both subtle and not-so-subtle ways, it fashions how we, as individuals and as a collective, relate to the world around us. Think of a movie that you saw, or a book that you read, or a poem that inspired you, and you will see just how powerful cultural mediums can be. Films such as Schindler?s List, or books such as Elie Wiesel?s Night, not only defined the genre of the Holocaust in popular culture, but they also helped to define how millions of Americans relate to that most horrific of events.



By contrast, music laced with violent or sexually explicit lyrics, or acts which glorify drug use and infidelity, also play a regrettably increasing role in Western and Israeli society. Perhaps the best way to counteract this trend, and its destructive impact, is to offer a healthy and compelling alternative. The only way to formulate that alternative is to have qualified people ready and capable of doing so. We should have no illusions ? the process is a long and difficult one, and a great deal of effort and patience will be required. Indeed, the temptation to retreat into our own comfortable, little religious corner is great, where we can mingle among ourselves and reduce our exposure and our children?s exposure to some of the less than pleasant influences ?out there?. But keeping the world at bay is not what Judaism is all about ? changing the world is our mandate. And popular Israeli culture is the last great frontier, waiting to be settled by religious Jews, just as the hills of Samaria and the deserts of Judea have been. The only way to accomplish this is one book, and one painting, and one film, at a time.



By educating budding religious artists, and preparing them to play a key role in various artistic realms, organizations like Emunah are demonstrating once again that, from the synagogue to the stage, Torah truly does embrace every aspect of our lives.

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Michael Freund served as deputy director of communications & policy planning in the Israeli prime minister's office from 1996 to 1999. He is currently an editorial writer and syndicated columnist for the Jerusalem Post.



[The foregoing article appears in Emunah Magazine, Winter 2003]