Jewish news website at U-Md. goes in search of the elusive story

Yakira Cohen
Yakira Cohen is editor in chief of Mitzpeh, an online publication covering Jewish life at University of Maryland in College Park. (Photo by Eric Schucht)

By Eric Schucht

A year ago Mitzpeh, the Jewish student publication on the University of Maryland’s College Park campus, had no problem finding news to report.

Now with students taking classes from their dorm rooms and apartments, and in-person programs and meetings a memory from before the coronavirus pandemic, the whole meaning of covering Jewish life on campus has changed.

“There’s just fewer events,” says Editor-in-Chief Yakira Cohen, a senior from New Rochelle, N.Y. “I mean, I feel like there’s a lot going on, but at the same time there’s like nothing going on, if that makes sense. Definitely less to cover. So it’s a lot about being creative and trying to figure out what we can cover. “

Still, Mitzpeh’s priorities have remained the same.

“Well, we’re really focusing this year on the same stuff we’ve always focused on, which is Jewish life on campus,” Cohen says. “That really hasn’t changed. It’s just that Jewish life looks a little bit different now. So naturally, what we cover is going to be a little bit

Many of Mitzpeh’s recent articles have focused on how the pandemic has affected Jewish groups and programs on campus. One article looked at how incoming freshman were adjusting to campus life amid the pandemic. Another reported on a for-charity online Zumba class, hosted by a campus Jewish group. Arts stories tout recent releases by U-Md.’s Jewish acapella groups.

While the stories reflect what’s happening in the community, Cohen says writing about the pandemic can be repetitive at times.

“It kind of feels like we have a similar angle for a lot of our stories, but I’m not sure if that’s a bad thing because that’s what’s going on,” she says.

Mitzpeh was founded as a weekly print newspaper in 1983 and went to an online-only format in 2015. In addition to finding stories, Cohen said a challenge has been finding students to work on the publication.

Typically Mitzpeh posts flyers around campus and has a recruitment table at the First Look Fair. But as classes have moved online and there are fewer people on campus, Mitzpeh has put more effort into reaching people virtually. Social Media Editor Jacquelyn Leffel works to expand the paper’s virtual reach.

“We’re getting some positive feedback, new likes on our Facebook pages, shares, you know, things like that, that helps our publicity and shows that people are liking what they’re seeing,” says Leffel, a junior from New Jersey.

Mitzpeh has a staff of seven writers and editors, including junior Deborah Brown, of Houston. She has been the publication’s copy editor for three years.

“I’m a pretty detail-oriented person, so the copy editing itself is very enjoyable,” Brown says.

Before the pandemic, Mitzpeh staff met regularly at its office on campus to discuss story ideas. These meetings have since moved to Zoom. Brown says she misses the in-person meetings. They were a chance to socialize with friends. Gone are the days of bumping into fellow staffers on campus as they headed to class, as those, too, have gone virtual.

“It’s been a hard adjustment, but it is doable,” Brown said. “It just means I’m sitting at my desk all day instead of walking from place to place.”

Brown also misses having access to the office, which was home to Mitzpeh’s physical archive. Brown says several of the old editions hang on the office walls and offered her a glimpse of the past.

“I really liked walking in and reading news headlines from 2007, 2008, about what students were doing on the Mall or across campus. And now, I don’t even have that. I can’t even walk in and see those newspapers,” Brown says.

For decades, Mitzpeh has served as a training ground for aspiring journalists. That’s what attracted Ileana Lozano to join the staff last year. Lozano, a junior, is the arts editor. Lozano is not Jewish and says she’s learned a lot about Jewish culture during her time at Mitzpeh. Recently, she attended her first Shabbat dinner.

“I also observed Yom Kippur this year,” she says. “And it was a really good learning experience for me. Like, I typically celebrate Christian holidays, but I felt like this was really meaningful. And I’m really glad that I made this decision to join Mitzpeh.”

In addition to social and skill-building aspects of the publication, Cohen says Mitzpeh’s purpose is to bring the various Jewish communities on campus together. That mission serves a greater purpose now that the pandemic has limited in-person gatherings or made them non-existent.

“If you’re just in your dorm, or in your apartment, or wherever you are, you’re not necessarily going to find out about what’s going on,” she says. “So I think this year, more than ever, it’s important that Mitzpeh is operating and people know about Mitzpeh, because how else are they going to find out what’s going on?”

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