Award-winning journalist and Ottawa native Rachel Fyman Schwartzberg spoke last week at a JET Women's Network event about her writing career and how her Ottawa roots helped her become a strong Jewish voice.
Schwartzberg, who is a graduate of Hillel Academy (now Ottawa Jewish Community School) and Yitzchak Rabin High School, writes about important issues facing the Orthodox Jewish community for Jewish Action, the magazine of the Orthodox Union.
Speaking to a group of more than 30 women via Zoom from her current home in Memphis, Tennessee, where she lives with her husband and four daughters, Schwartzberg explained how her career in journalism began after a job shadow day when she was a student at Yitzchak Rabin. Her teacher at the time sent her to the Ottawa Citizen newspaper to shadow a journalist, who warned her: “Journalism is not the career for anyone who wants a family.”
Schwartzberg, whose writing has earned her several prestigious Simon Rockower Awards, known as the “Jewish Pulitzers” for Excellence in Jewish Journalism, disproved this dire prediction. She shared with the JET audience how she has achieved balance by working as a writer for a not-for-profit organization, and as a journalist for Jewish Action, writing on topics that allow her to be a voice in her Jewish community.
She explained how growing up in Ottawa helped form her Jewish activism. To begin with, she learned that when you are in a small community, there is “no fading into the background … you learn early on that you matter and what you do matters.” This taught her that you get out of life, only what you put in and that it is essential to participate.
In comparing Ottawa to where she lives today in Memphis, she explained that Memphis has an old Jewish community, with a small, vibrant Orthodox population. The biggest difference is that Ottawa is far more multicultural and residents here embrace and celebrate diversity, while in Memphis the community is more homogenous. In fact, for many people, she is the first Jewish person they have ever met. This has presented some comical conversations such as when a curious person asked about keeping Kosher. When Schwartzberg confirmed she didn’t eat pork, the concerned person asked incredulously, “if you don’t eat pork, what do you eat for your Easter ham?”
This comical anecdote points to another life lesson that working in journalism has taught her.
“We all live in our own little bubbles, viewing the world from our own lens,” said Schwartzberg who gave the example of social media which can be an echo chamber of people speaking and sharing the same world views. As a journalist, she has learned that we all must be cautious not to stick to preconceived ideas.
In fact, learning about new subjects as she investigates and updates her opinions and knowledge is one of the elements that she enjoys most about her work. Currently, she is writing about preventative health care in the Jewish community, and she quips that after speaking to various experts in different health fields, she now has all kinds of bits of advice like “you can’t eat cholent every day” if you want happy digestion.
When asked which of her recent articles she was most proud of, she pointed to the feature she wrote about how vaping among Orthodox teens was on the rise.
“I discovered this super significant public health issue that was unknown in the adult population,” Schwartzberg said. “I really felt I was doing a service to the Jewish community on a topic that was unknown and needed more understanding.”
Another aspect she enjoys about her career is speaking to people who are passionate about their work and lives. Whether they manage a soup kitchen, work as a financial adviser, or run marathons, Schwartzberg finds herself inspired by learning about what drives them.
Finding people who inspire and lead by example was part of the concluding message Schwartzberg shared with the audience, reminding us all of the famous quote by Fred Rogers that became popular after the horrors of 9/11: “When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, "Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.”
To read more articles by Schwartzberg visit https://jewishaction.com/author/rachel-schwartzberg/
To learn more about JET, Jewish Education Through Torah, a beneficiary agency of the Jewish Federation of Ottawa, visit https://www.jetottawa.com/. JET provides a wide variety of classes and programs for Jews of all backgrounds, levels of knowledge and practice.