My initiation into the world of Jewish journalism took place 50 years ago when I stumbled into a job reporting for the New York office of The Jewish Chronicle of London, the granddaddy of Jewish newspapers and an institution among British Jews since 1841.
Reading recent reports of the imminent demise and apparent last-minute rescue of The JC, the world’s oldest Jewish newspaper, got me thinking about my gradual transition back then from a would-be academic to a career journalist. Those memories have taken on more poignancy of late, given the almost-death of The JC, the closure a few weeks ago of the Canadian Jewish News and the deeply uncertain future of Jewish journalism in the U.S. at a time when it is needed most.
But more of that later.
I knew little about The JC’s proud history back in 1970. I was a graduate student in American literature, newly married, and eager for part-time work. Fortunately, I was introduced to Richard Jaffe, a warm and elegant veteran journalist who had covered Eastern Europe after World War II and was the United Nations correspondent for The JC. He hired me for two days a week, and over the next couple of years, with Dick as my mentor, I covered a wide range of stories about Jewish life in New York. Along the way my interest in dark humor in the writings of Nathaniel Hawthorne — my planned master’s thesis — waned as my curiosity about how the Jewish community functioned, and sometimes didn’t, waxed.
Each week Dick would communicate with the home office in London by telex, proposing various stories. The editors there would respond up or down, and if it was a go, tell us a preferred story length — usually short — as in, “Send 250 words on synagogue de-facing.” They seemed to prefer what I came to think of as Jewish exotica rather than in-depth reporting about Jewish life in New York. I remember being surprised at how enthused the home editors were over a story I proposed on gangs in Brooklyn who were stealing streimlich (fur hats) off the heads of chasidim and selling the fur. I thought the editors would ask for a news brief, but I was wrong. “Send up to 1,000 words, possible Page 1,” the cable read, as best I remember.
The JC was more than a newspaper in those days. It was the bridge that connected Jews throughout Britain. With a large and thoroughly professional staff, The JC filled its pages with deep reporting on British Jewish life and the Mideast as well as a lively opinion section and glossy supplements on everything from literature to fashion.
Part of the reason for The JC’s financial as well as editorial success was that, given that the majority of British Jews lived in the London area, the paper served both a national and local audience. The social pages were a major source of income, with people from around the country paying to publish announcements of bar mitzvahs, weddings and obituaries.
Dick Jaffe was a patient and generous editor, allowing me to take on meatier stories at times: a phony “rabbi” performing interfaith marriages; UN debates on the Mideast conflict; a bitter battle between Jewish and other minority groups over a major Queens housing project. I enjoyed most of the assignments, but I sometimes lacked the grit required for a hardened reporter. When a young Jewish man hung himself in Central Park after receiving a draft notice that would have sent him to Vietnam, I was assigned to visit the shiva house in Brooklyn and interview family members. But I couldn’t bring myself to go. Instead, I called the house and was relieved when told the family didn’t want to talk to the press.
In addition to his JC post, Dick was also associate editor of The Jewish Week-American Examiner, then a small-circulation, privately owned New York paper that later evolved into today’s Jewish Week. Thanks in part to his help and encouragement, I became assistant editor of The Jewish Week in 1972, and have remained in the field ever since, still passionate about the vital role a Jewish newspaper can play in the life of a community.
That message is getting increased attention these days. Speaking at a Forward-sponsored webinar last week on the perilous state of Jewish journalism today, Jonathan Sarna of Brandeis University said the role of Jewish media is “to shape and maintain community.” He added that Jewish media should serve as “a watchdog over the Jewish community and as a purveyor of truth. And we run the risk of having neither.”
That’s because, like media organizations everywhere, community Jewish newspapers have endured a steep decrease in advertising amidst an internet culture where readers, and especially younger people, are used to getting their news instantly and for free. And that was before the coronavirus cratered the national economy.
Sarna said he feared the community will only realize the depth of its loss when Jewish newspapers go out of business.
Andres Spokoiny, the president and CEO of the Jewish Funders Network, agreed. He asserted that if Jewish newspapers are no longer around to serve as “the American Jewish public square” for dialogue and debate, the result will be more extremism and an even greater divide among us. Spokoiny said part of his role today is to highlight to foundations and major donors the importance of independent Jewish newspapers in “our Jewish eco-system,” as necessary as day schools, camps and human services.
I hope our community hears these messages and sees the closure of Canada’s 60-year-old national Jewish newspaper and the drama playing out in England over The JC as serious warning signals. And time for action.
The group that rescued The JC last week said it viewed the enterprise not as “a commercial venture but as a community asset.” The consortium is establishing a charitable trust to control the paper and allow it to remain “a vital pillar of communal life,” it said in a statement.
The Jewish Week has made no secret of its financial crisis, exacerbated by the pandemic. It was heartening and deeply gratifying to see that more than 500 readers have responded to the paper’s appeals for support, which has helped raise much-needed funds in recent weeks.
But far more is needed to ensure the survival and sustainability of the newspaper serving the largest Jewish community in the world. As American journalism has seen the business model collapse and give way to a philanthropic model, it is time for our communal leaders — foundations, federations and major donors — to step up, or face a community missing the bridge that can span our increasingly deep divisions.
Gary Rosenblatt is editor at large. His column appears monthly. Gary@jewishweek.org.