Hannah Dreyfus, an investigative journalist, has spent the last six years both as a member of the Jewish community, and as one of its few watchdogs.
While living in Brooklyn, Dreyfus reported on abuses of power among Jewish institutions and their leaders. She broke the story of alleged sexual misconduct by Jewish philanthropist and leader Michael Steinhardt as well as Reform rabbinic giant Rabbi Sheldon Zimmerman; they are among a handful of others.
“I uncovered really unsavory and painful parts of how our community functions,” Dreyfus told Jewish News.
She’s faced pushback from both sources and publishers for what she’s written. “It tested me in terms of wanting to remain engaged and associated with a community where I was seeing a really dark underside,” she said.
Dreyfus, 29, moved to Phoenix last August with her husband and three children to work at ProPublica’s Southwest office. The past six years of her reporting have shown her the importance of local news and the challenges facing the Jewish community at large. She’s learned how to reconcile those challenges with her own Jewish experience.
“The main thing I took away is how critical it is for members of our community to support reporting on our community,” she said. She had been with New York Jewish Week from May 2014 until January 2021, as the COVID pandemic cut into the paper’s revenue and contributed to its acquisition by 70 Faces Media.
“It was a really sad moment for Jewish journalism,” she said. New York Jewish Week had established a reputation as a news source that held community figures accountable.
“These stories won’t happen if we don’t support the publications within our community that cover them,” she said. Local news is a service to any Jewish community and a way to keep it safe and accountable, she added.
Dreyfus defines the Jewish community as “anyone who considers themselves a Jewish American and has a vested interest in the issues concerning our peoplehood.” And that community has many blind spots, she said.
There’s a discrepancy between the image that many in the Jewish community have of themselves, and what’s actually happening, she said. And there’s a pressure to maintain that image at all costs.
“I think the Jewish community needs to understand that we are behind other faith communities when it comes to proactively addressing abuses of power,” she said. “The Achilles' heel of the Jewish community is we see ourselves as a big family. And so we let things slide, we don't deal with things, and we let really low standards continue and perpetuate.”
The reporting could have led her to disassociate the Jewish community after “seeing so much darkness and being in a front-row seat to so much dysfunction and abuse,” she said, but she’s not going anywhere.
She is Modern Orthodox and married to a rabbi. Being part of the Jewish community is integral for her and her family.
“I carry so many stories from victims of well-known figures in our community. For me to stay involved and engaged with the Jewish community, I had to do some soul searching,” she said. “I realized that I'm sticking around in the Jewish community and that I care about our community doing better.”
She wants to see community institutions and leaders take complaints of abuse of power more seriously. “I hope the community starts to really look in the mirror when it comes to holding figures of power accountable, even if they're known and beloved in our communities and even if our nonprofit institutions depend on them financially.”
Upon moving to Phoenix, she and her husband became members of Beth Joseph Congregation and enrolled their 5-year-old son in a Jewish day school.
“People seem really friendly and open to new people and different perspectives. I came here for work, not for community, but I was happy to find community here – happy and pleasantly surprised.”
As a ProPublica Abrams Reporting Fellow based in the Southwest office, Dreyfus will be reporting on threats to democracy, as well as continuing investigative work on sexual abuse, religion and socio-political issues affecting women and children. JN