Bari Weiss clearly feels at home in Pittsburgh.
How could she not? Her featured appearance at the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh Community Foundation’s fall event last Sunday drew one of the largest crowds ever to a Federation program — more than 300 people, who greeted their hometown girl with rousing applause.
Politically, however, Weiss, 33, has been “homeless for a really long time, and that’s still the case,” she told the crowd assembled for brunch at Rodef Shalom Congregation.
Weiss, a journalist who is frequently criticized by the left for her conservative opinion pieces, caused a media stir last April when she left her position at the right-leaning Wall Street Journal for the progressive-leaning New York Times.
“I’ve gone in the last year from being the most progressive person at The Wall Street Journal, to being the most right-winged person at The New York Times,” she said.
Weiss is a true original, an independent thinker who grew up in Squirrel Hill, the daughter of community stalwarts Amy and Lou Weiss. She graduated from Community Day School, then Shady Side Academy, before heading to Columbia University where she graduated with a major in history in 2007. Since then, she has been a senior editor at Tablet, an online Jewish news magazine, then an associate book review editor and an op-ed editor at The Wall Street Journal. She currently is a staff editor for The New York Times opinion section.
During Sunday’s question-and-answer format discussion with Rabbi Danny Schiff, Foundation Scholar, it became obvious why Weiss feels like she has no political home in contemporary America. She is adamantly anti-Trump, while advocating the repeal of the Second Amendment. She has no qualms about criticizing some current left-wing tenets such as its mandate for intersectionality and the condemnation of cultural appropriation, yet she described the NFL players’ kneeling during the national anthem as “the most elegant, honorable and respectful means of protest that I can imagine.”
Eloquent and persuasive, Weiss skillfully justified how and why each of her varied opinions was sound and rational throughout the one-hour conversation, which appropriately covered “News, Jews & Views” — in that order.
Schiff began the conversation asking Weiss to describe her political outlook and inquiring whether she had been more comfortable working for The Wall Street Journal than The New York Times.
It was the Journal’s response to Trump, she said, that was the impetus for her to change jobs. She described the mix of views on Trump among the staff at the Journal and the paper’s ultimate decision to “be neutral” to Trump, then to move toward a “pro-Trump stance.”
“I’m thrilled to be at The New York Times,” she said, adding that she is still writing the same sorts of pieces that she wrote while at the Journal but is now viewed as “provocative,” has a broader audience and is “engaging with people who don’t agree with me.”
Yet, despite a generally conservative bent, Weiss is not shy about vehemently criticizing the president, especially when it comes to his “attacking the role of a free press in a democracy.”
“Trump is acting like an autocrat,” she said. “I see that as a really troubling sign of what could come.”
Weiss also called to task the media for “letting Trump be the assignment editor,” and allowing him to dictate the news of the day by any random Tweet.
“We are letting ourselves be distracted by Trump being a master of chaos,” she said.
Weiss is also deeply concerned by the “ideology that fueled Trump’s rise,” she said. “We can’t take that seriously enough.”
But what keeps her up at night, she said, first, is the fact that “this man is in charge of our national security, that he is in charge at the end of the day for our safety.” The security issue was the reason why she could not vote for Trump “or absolve those who did.”
Her second major concern when it comes to Trump is his character.
“One thing the conservatives have gotten right is emphasizing that character matters,” Weiss stressed. “Trump has proved the conservatives were right.”
Weiss sees the faults of the left with comparable acumen, particularly its emphasis on “identity politics” which have “gone extremist,” she said.
Switching from news to Jews, Schiff questioned Weiss on the concept of chosenness, which led the journalist to a discussion on the recent Harvey Weinstein debacle and how the fact that Weinstein is Jewish has not been exploited either in the media or in her own private conversations.
While “decades ago, something like this would have sent most Jews into a state of nervousness about what it meant for the Jews,” Weiss said, the fact that Weinstein’s Jewishness is hardly mentioned shows that Jews are in a “place where we are comfortable in our skin.”
The discussion turned to anti-Semitism in America, and while Weiss sees no immediate threat to Jews’ safety here, she does see warning signs similar to those in Europe 20 years ago and cautions Jews to pay attention.
“I’d rather catch the cancer at stage one than at stage four,” she said, emphasizing that the threats against Jews historically can come just as readily from the left as from the right.
“There is hostility on both sides,” she said.
Weiss has written opinion pieces on anti-Semitism veiled as anti-Zionism, including a piece about last spring’s Women’s March, organized in part by Muslim activist Linda Sarsour, who famously Tweeted: “Nothing is creepier than Zionism.”
“It bothers me that those of us raising the alarm about anti-Semitism veiled as anti-Zionism have been dismissed,” she said.
Schiff turned to the challenge of engaging the support of young Jews for Israel.
“In most liberal arts colleges, Israel is not cool because it’s seen as the last standing bastion of white colonialism in the Middle East,” Weiss explained. “There is cache right now with being a victim. Oppression gives you moral high ground and moral standing. It’s hard for a college student to stand up for Zionism and being a Jew.” There needs to be a shift in thinking, she said, from Zionism being a colonial problem to being a “movement of restoration. Israel is the origins of our people. It’s important for students to know their history. It’s important for them to understand that the fundamental truth and justice of the Jewish story is crucial to fight back against anti-Zionism on college campuses.”
The “views” portion of the discussion shifted rapidly from topic to topic, ranging from the struggle at the Kotel between the Orthodox and the non-Orthodox, to contemporary feminism, to how being a Jew from Pittsburgh has influenced her work as a journalist.
The Pittsburgh Jewish community, Weiss said, is “haimish, down-to-earth and grounded” and has informed how she views the world.
Being Jewish, she added, “is the most important part of my identity. Being a Jew has never been anything other than a source of pride for me.” pjc
Toby Tabachnick can be reached at