At 22, David A.M. Wilensky appears full of contradictions: He wears tzitzit but not a kipa. He embraces Reform Judaism but attends a Conservative synagogue. He’s a Zionist but unafraid to criticize Israeli policy.
This sort of boundary crossing finds its way into his blog, the Reform Shuckle; into his writing for the “progressive Jews and Judaism” webzine JewSchool, on whose editorial board he sits; and into New Voices, the web publication of the Jewish Student Press Service, to which he contributed as a student at Drew University in Madison.
Perhaps it’s all in the eye of the beholder. “I go to a Conservative synagogue because I like the services better, but I live a personal life that’s informed by what I learned growing up in the Reform world,” he told NJJN in an interview on the patio of his South Orange apartment. “Is that any more of a contradiction than people who belong to a Conservative synagogue and don’t keep kosher and never come to services?”
And “to assert that being a Zionist and criticizing Israel are contradictory,” he said, “is to call into question the Zionism of every Israeli who has ever so much as complained about a bill passing the Knesset that they opposed.
“It is the same thing,” Wilensky continued, “as saying that someone who criticizes the president of the United States might not be a patriot — or that a foreigner who does the same is actively anti-American.”
Finally, addressing his religious garb, he said, “Wearing a tallit katan and wearing a kipa are separate practices, with separate origins and rationales, so I don’t see that as contradictory either. Unusual? Yes. But not contradictory.
“Maybe that says something about my generation, but to me it all just makes sense,” he concluded.
Now, those seeming incongruities have become part of his day job as editor of New Voices and executive director of JSPS, a dual role he took on this month.
Founded in 1970, JSPS has provided content for campus Jewish publications around the country and has nurtured generations of young Jewish writers and activists. It launched New Voices as a print magazine in 1991, featuring student contributions. By 2010, New Voices had become a web-only publication, regularly publishing articles on campus issues, Israel, and Jewish innovation.
Its editor is usually a fresh college graduate who technically reports to a board of directors. The editor and publisher serve for just two years before moving on.
Wilensky recently graduated from Drew, where he served as editor-in-chief of the student newspaper The Acorn. He now works out of a cubicle at the Manhattan offices of the Forward newspaper on a shoestring budget of $90,000.
During the interview, he spoke of his goals for the web magazine and the Jewish press movement, and what the publication means for his generation.
Speaking about the “official” Jews, he said, “They have crafted a Jewish community that serves the needs of their generation. Meanwhile, they worry and fret to no end about whether the kids are all right. New Voices is here to tell you that the kids are all right and to explain how and where their worldview diverges from the current mainstream.
“The official Jews can conduct all the surveys they want, but the best way to figure out what young Jews are thinking is to hear it in their voices.”
With a core of 10 writers and “more than five but fewer than 10” bloggers from universities around the country, Wilensky said he hopes he can increase the traffic to the New Voices website this fall. In the past, content wasn’t being updated often enough to make return visits worthwhile, he said. The previous editor, Ben Sales, got a grant to hire 10 bloggers, each of whom would write every week.
This year, Wilensky got a grant for 10 writers who will each submit an article every month.
He’s nervous about the workload, especially as a staff of exactly one. “Ten articles a month is a heavy workload when you’re the only staff and you’re also responsible for fund-raising,” he said.
He acknowledged that he often finds himself envious of the interaction among the Forward staffers. He ruminates over why there are only 10 writers for a national news service, when The Acorn had 80 people on a single campus. “What drew everyone to be involved? It’s the personal attention that comes from hierarchy,” he ultimately concluded. He wonders if he can create something similar, bringing in editors to be responsible for different areas of the paper.
A native of Austin, Texas, Wilensky said he never planned to be a journalist. “I was going to be a Reform rabbi,” he said, but when he got to Drew, he found he “didn’t like Hillel.” Instead, he answered an ad for copy editors at the campus newspaper. “I was supposed to come in two hours a week for some copy editing. Before long, I started coming two or three nights a week. Then someone quit, and they needed an assistant news editor. I told them I’d do it on a temporary basis.”
He started covering the administration, found he had a knack for it, and within two years he was named editor-in-chief.
At Drew, where he majored in religious studies, he came to pride himself on The Acorn’s local coverage of national events like Barack Obama’s election. Rather than rush to national hotspots on election night, reporters stayed on campus — coverage known as “hyperlocal” in the trade and took photos of people watching the election returns at the University Center. The result?
“We had pictures like two black students hugging and crying upon hearing the news that Obama was elected,” he said.
He plans on following the same local sensibility in covering events like Israel Apartheid Week in March.
“Let’s say three out of 10 reporters are on campuses where apartheid week happens,” he said. “We can knit together their individual reporting of their own campuses into a larger story. It just changes the scope of the reporting. I’m very excited about this.”
Each year Wilensky attends several different incarnations of Limmud NY, the Jewish learning conference; cultivates relationships with leaders in Jewish journalism; and attends conferences up and down the East Coast.
It’s no wonder he has little time to clean his apartment (leased from a Drew University professor on leave for the year). Most of the space is littered with the rumpled belongings of friends and roommates coming and going.
A patio table is scattered with the accessories of his single Jewish post-collegiate life: a hookah, an ashtray filled with cigarette butts, a Kiddush cup, half-melted Shabbat candles, and a bottle of Febreeze. Behind him, several freshly laundered tzitzit hang on a rack to dry.
Wilensky is confident about the future of journalism, but remains uncertain about his own future.
“I’m obsessed with liturgy right now. Maybe I’ll get a PhD in liturgy and that will be my thing,” he said.
But he’s certainly got a journalist’s instincts. “Why don’t Jewish papers ever put federations under the microscope?” he asked. Maybe he’ll blog about it.