The ongoing challenge for a Jewish journalist
It’s not often one gets to read his own obituary.
But that’s kind of how it felt after NJJN reported on my plan to step down as editor and publisher on Sept. 30 (“Jewish Week editor to step down,” June 27).
I’ve received a number of notes from colleagues in the Jewish community and readers I’ve never met that have touched me deeply. Many of them used the word “bittersweet,” saying they were happy for me that I could relax a bit more after almost a half-century of dealing with daily pressures and weekly deadlines, but sorry to mark “the end of an era.”
I was truly touched by the sentiment — though I know there are others who feel quite differently and have expressed themselves forcefully to that effect over the years. And I appreciate that, too. (My late father, a pulpit rabbi for more than 40 years, used to say that while a rabbi who is universally disliked is doing his job poorly, a spiritual leader who is universally liked also has a problem: probably too reluctant to chide his congregants when needed.)
Being on vacation and out of the country these last couple of weeks has given me the chance to stop and take a breath, thinking back on the past and ahead to the future.
So much has changed in journalism over the years. Newsroom typewriters have been replaced by computers, and news is reported and transmitted instantly, not weekly. Unfortunately, respect for the profession has declined as it has been buffeted by financial challenges and bogus charges of “fake news.” Coverage of Jewish life has changed dramatically as well. Jewish newspapers around the country used to read like a bulletin board of communal activities and social announcements supplemented by wire service stories on Israel. Editors were fearful of tackling issues close to home. But with more probing coverage today of the community, including its shortcomings, come charges of digging too deep.
For example, our reporting over the years on sexual abuse, particularly by rabbis, is condemned by some as a violation of the same Jewish laws and values we maintain we are upholding.
What remains, then, is the dilemma of the journalist: seeking to be true to both his craft and his community.
Of course, the Jewish world has changed in a number of dramatic ways since 1972, when I started out as assistant editor of The Jewish Week-American Examiner, a precursor to the current publication. Back then The New York Times had a reporter, Irving “Pat” Spiegel, whose primary beat was to cover the programs and conferences of organizations like B’nai Brith, Hadassah, and the once-influential American Jewish Congress. Those days are long gone. Legacy Jewish organizations still play a major role, but much of the creativity, energy, and financing in the Jewish community comes from private foundations, many of which did not exist at the time. And they are often willing to make the kind of bold investments in projects — with the potential for failure — that consensus-driven federations or establishment organizations are reluctant to support.
Other major shifts? Many of the key issues are the same — assimilation, the quest for Mideast peace, the cost and content of Jewish education, efforts to promote Jewish civility, etc. — but the context within those discussions has changed significantly. Israel, once the glue that connected Jews with pride, increasingly divides us. Does loyalty to the Jewish state require ignoring threats to its democratic values?
Closer to home, the biggest growth in recent years has been the Orthodox community (to the surprise of many) and the “nones,” those younger people with no Jewish affiliation. That makes the growing divide between the Orthodox and the rest of American Jewry, on a range of issues from West Bank communities to President Donald Trump, all the more severe. And as assimilation increases, interfaith marriage is no longer decried from liberal pulpits; instead, rabbis compete to reach out to engage such couples in meaningful ways.
In addition, a community that defined its success by the numbers of those who affiliate with synagogues and Jewish organizations now focuses on providing engaging experiences for unaffiliated young people who may otherwise drift away. The older generation is obsessed with the fear of a dwindling Jewish community even as many of their children and grandchildren are defining their Judaism through social justice, commitment to the environment, and other critical, but less parochial, issues.
Jewish life isn’t dying; it’s evolving. But how long can we continue to call ourselves one community?
Perhaps the most surprising change is the re-emergence of anti-Semitism as a serious concern, not only for European Jewry but here at home. Who would have thought 25 years ago that we would need armed security at our Shabbat services?
Jewish journalism has never faced a more difficult environment — and never been more needed to bridge the gaps among us. Writing about communal challenges and flaws from within is always tricky. In my columns over the years, I have often acknowledged my own struggles to be both a loyal member of the community and an independent, and sometimes critical, voice. That hasn’t changed, and it doesn’t get easier. Indeed, it’s far more difficult to be seen as fair to all in this moment of deep distrust and dismissal, one side against the other. But that’s why serious Jewish journalism is more important than ever. The work is not just an exercise in reporting a story; it’s an opportunity to have a say in the destiny of a community.
Fortunately, there is a dedicated core of Jews in the field and a new generation of talented journalists who have taken up the challenge, and that gives me hope. At the conclusion of the very first column I wrote in this space, in July 1993, I noted that a mainstream journalist “knows that the answer to ‘If not me, who?’ is ‘Somebody else.’ The Jewish journalist knows there is no one else. And s/he serves a community that deserves, and requires, better. That can make Jewish journalism far more than a job; that can make it a calling.”
It was true then, as it is now and will be until the days of the Messiah.
Gary Rosenblatt is the publisher and editor of The New York Jewish Week, NJJN’s sister publication. He can be reached at . Gary@jewishweek.org.