A decade ago, while working for The Associated Press in Dallas, I wrote a feature on frequent-flier rabbis:
COLLEYVILLE, Texas (AP) — For Jeff Brown, studying to become a rabbi has been quite a journey – and not just in the spiritual sense.
For the last two years, the 25-year-old scholar from Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Cincinnati served as student rabbi at a Reform congregation in this Dallas suburb – roughly 1,000 miles away from his school.
“I can give you tips on flying,” joked Brown, who spent two weekends a month with the 70 families of Congregation Beth Israel.
Fellow student Shana Goldstein worked with a congregation in Natchez, Miss., while classmate Daniel Septimus still leads monthly Sabbath services in Rapid City, S.D.
They’re all part of a group of about 50 Hebrew Union students who, as part of their studies, travel to congregations from the Rockies to the Everglades to help Jewish communities too small to support a full-time rabbi.
I was reminded of that story when I came across an NPR report this week on "roving rabbis."
NPR's descriptive lede:
Mountains and forests surround the little town of Show Low, Ariz. It's home to only 10,000 people, but the heavily Mormon community is still the biggest place for more than hour in every direction.
It's not the kind of setting that typically fosters a thriving Jewish community — which is exactly why Hasidic rabbinical students Zalman Refson and Yaakov Kaplan are here.
Residents of the rural West have historically relied on the talents of people passing through — traveling doctors, traveling circus performers and traveling preachers. So-called roving rabbis like Refson and Kaplan are carrying on that tradition, meeting rural Jews who otherwise might rarely interact with others of their faith.
They're two of the hundreds of rabbinical students who travel to rural places all across the globe each year. These roving rabbis make these journeys in the name of Chabad, a movement within Orthodox Judaism.
Young, bearded and dressed in black pants and long-sleeved white shirts, even in the Arizona heat, the two men stick out in Show Low. Kaplan says being a roving rabbi is all about helping Jews reconnect to their faith.
I like that the NPR reporter focuses on two specific students and tags along as they visit isolated Jews. It adds an element of realism to the story and really helps take readers/listeners behind the scenes.
On the other hand, NPR never gives any specific data on the number of Jews in rural communities.
Meanwhile, the story quotes a rural Jewish woman who has been attending a Bible church and jokes about her mother loving "ham." However, NPR fails to explain why that's unusual or funny.
Near the end, NPR drops this unattributed bomb:
The roving rabbis are often seen as a threat to more liberal Jewish congregations for promoting a traditional version of the faith. But Kaplan says they're only trying to inspire Jews to be a little more observant.
Who says the roving rabbis are a threat? Are there more liberal Jewish congregations in the rural communities visited by the Hassidic students? If this is an issue, why not give a voice to the Jews with concerns?
Give NPR credit for producing an interesting story. But in places, the piece suffers from a lack of context and explanation. That makes for an incomplete report.