On January 29, 2022, the Zahava and Moshael Straus Center for Torah and Western Thought, in partnership with the Shevet Glaubach Center for Career Strategy and Professional Development, hosted letters editor of The Wall Street Journal Elliot Kaufman in conversation with Straus Center Deputy Director Rabbi Dr. Stu Halpern. The event, hosted at Congregation Shearith Israel in New York, invited students and guests to hear from Kaufman about his role at the Journal and how his Jewish identity has shaped his career.
Kaufman started off the evening by outlining his own intellectual journey. A precocious seven-year-old who read newspapers in order to have something insightful to say at the dinner table, Kaufman had what he describes as “a classic North American-Jewish upbringing.” He grew up in a Conservative Jewish family that valued Jewish traditions and closely followed the latest news from Israel.
At Stanford University, while working as an assistant manager to the basketball team, Kaufman submitted his first article to the university paper, Stanford Magazine. Kaufman soon became a key contributor to the paper, reporting on local stories for the student body.
It was also at Stanford that Kaufman had his first exposure to Modern Orthodox Jews—on campus and as a summer fellow at The Tikvah Fund. It was then that Kaufman developed an aspiration to adopt a stricter observance of Jewish tradition later in life.
After university,Kaufman took up a fellowship at The Wall Street Journal that evolved into a full-time position. As assistant editorial features editor, Kaufman would edit and fact-check op-eds and columns for the opinion section of the Journal. In 2021, he took over as letters editor, putting him in charge of selecting, editing and sometimes soliciting letters to the editor in the daily paper.
Generally, the letters editor receives around 400 letters from readers each day. Kaufman’s job is to sift through them and select a few for publication. By tradition, each letter is limited to 272 words—the length of Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. Kaufman looks for content that “leaps off the page” in selecting his letters. He asserted that an experienced editor can usually evaluate the quality of a letter in seconds.
Additionally, Kaufman continues to write op-eds and editorials at WSJ and for other publications, often tackling matters of interest to the Jewish community, such as his piece addressing Kanye West’s antisemitism in Commentary.
Kaufman said that the heavy coverage of Jewish topics in the media reflected the general public’s great interest in Jewish stories. “Jewish stories are big stories.” Kaufman asserted, and thus “there are endless Jewish stories” ripe for reporting on.
Kaufman concluded the conversation with some closing advice for students aspiring to publish their own articles. “Write about what you know,” he said. Journals, magazines and newspapers seek to amplify the voices of authors who have a stake in their subject matter. In the event that a subject is beyond their expertise, Kaufman advises students to “be journalists” and interview people central to the story.
“The most compelling pieces about Jews are written by Jews,” Kaufman noted. Though, he also noted this principle is sometimes abused by authors who are convinced that they can comment on every Jewish subject by the mere virtue of their Jewish background.
All throughout, Yeshiva University students drove the conversation, challenging the speaker with sharp questions and comments.
This event was the latest in a series of programs sponsored or co-sponsored by the Straus Center and the Shevet Glaubach Center.
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