Two stories about the impact of Jewish Week-sponsored programs: one about a rookie in the organized Jewish community; the other, a veteran.
First, the rookie.
Samantha Vinokur, a high school student in Syosset, L.I., in the early years of this decade, grew up in a passionately Zionist family — her father is a Sabra – but she felt unqualified, in a public school where Israel frequently came under political attack, to defend her feelings to friends or classmates.
A fellow student, from a Palestinian background, confronted her one day. “I can’t believe,” he told Vinokur, “that your people are doing this to mine.” He meant “the occupation.”
Vinokur tried to defend Israel’s benign administration of the Arab territories and explain Israelis’ fear of terrorism — “The Israelis are the victims,” she told the student — but she didn’t have all the facts. Or the confidence.
Then she learned about Write On For Israel, a training program for selected high school students that grooms them to serve as factual, eloquent advocates for the Jewish state when they get to college. She applied, was selected, and spent two years, including a ten-day mission to Israel, studying the facts about Israel’s history, military and geography.
Today, after serving as an outspoken advocate for Israel in college, she works for Masa, which sponsors youth trips to Israel, and for the American Zionist movement. At 21, she is spending the early years of her career in “Israel advocacy,” a fact she largely attributes to her Write On training.
Now, the veteran’s story.
Steven M. Cohen, research professor of Jewish Social Policy at Hebrew Union College–Jewish Institute of Religion and one of the most prominent academic thinkers in American Jewry, was invited two years ago to a 48-hour, invitation-only Jewish gathering at the Pearlstone Conference and Retreat Center near Baltimore. Cohen knows all the major figures in the American Jewish community, but he accepted the invitation to “The Conversation,” an annual event since 2005 that brings together about 50 American Jews from various denominational and political orientations and gives them the chance to engage in candid, off-the-record discussions about whatever is on their minds.
“It was extraordinarily worthwhile,” he says. “It was one of the best conferences I had even been to.”
Write On For Israel and The Conversation are two Jewish Week programs that began in the last decade.
In this era of social media and 24/7 news, the paper has expanded both its proactive interaction with the wider Jewish community and its news-gathering capabilities through its robust website, thejewishweek.com, which includes, in addition to the content of the print edition, exclusive videos, blogs, opinion pieces, features and advice columns.
“It extends our relationship with the Jewish community around the country,” says Gary Rosenblatt, who has served as the paper’s editor and publisher for more than 18 years. The outreach activities and the upgrading of The Jewish Week website are designed, he says, to “inspire people to care about and become more involved with Jewish life.”
The Jewish Week extra-curricular activities include:
♦ Fresh Ink, a website for Jewish high school students that is being re-launched. Written for and by teens, Fresh Ink gives voice to the activities, ideas and concerns of a population rarely covered in Jewish media.
♦ Text/Context, a monthly literary supplement that focuses on such themes as “Optimism,” “The Other,” and “Loss.” The contributors include leading authors and scholars who explore favored topics in a depth not available in most newspapers’ limited space and format.
♦n A series of community forums and events, free to the public, bringing newsmakers, authors and thinkers together to discuss the topics of the day, informing and entertaining our readers. Programs range from discussions of special needs in the community to a memorable debate on God between Christopher Hitchens and Rabbi David Wolpe that drew 2,000 attendees.
♦ Write On For Israel, which prepares high school students to take Israel’s case to the public when they reach campus and, later, the working world.
♦ The Conversation. Begun in 2005, this annual Sunday-to-Tuesday gathering at a retreat has allowed hundreds of established and emerging Jewish leaders to meet in free-wheeling discussions on what it means to be Jewish in America in the 21st century. Impressed with The Conversation’s success, UJA-Federation of New York commissioned The Jewish Week to hold a similar gathering for a wide range of New York Jewish leaders and emerging leaders; the NYConversation took place in June and was widely praised by its participants.
And there is The Jewish Week’s increasing presence in cyberspace, evidenced by a Jewish Week Facebook page, and blogs and tweets by the paper’s staffers and outside contributors.
The rhythm of the paper’s workweek — like that of any weekly publication facing competition from online and on-the-air news sources that can be accessed anytime — has undergone a major change in the last decade. In the old days, a week’s news cycle ended when an issue was finished on Wednesdays (now late Tuesdays). Assignments for the next week’s issue would look ahead to the next issue. Now, breaking new developments that take place after deadline can be updated within minutes on thejewishweek.com.
The outreach activities and the online activities complement the paper’s basic mission, to serve as both the eyes and ears, and to be a watchdog for the Jewish community.
“The quick tempo of the news cycle these days forces you to be nimble, to react quickly to events on the website and to surround breaking news with analytical pieces that go beyond the initial story and add a sense of perspective and context,” says Robert Goldblum, the paper’s managing editor.
“The Jewish Week remains one of the most important and vital organizations within the Jewish community that cuts across all denominational lines,” says Peter Wang, Jewish Week board president. “We are the information agency for the Jewish community, and expanding our role to include our forums, the Conversation, Write On for Israel and other similar programs adds enormously to the vibrancy of Jewish life in New York. Our newspaper does more than merely report the news — we enrich the community we serve.”
All these activities add to The Jewish Week’s reach and influence, and help create a better-educated readership, which includes members of the community — especially young ones — who have not necessarily developed the habit of regularly reading a Jewish newspaper.
At The Conversation, says Steven Cohen, he benefited from meeting “a very diverse crowd in terms of generation, politics and religious background.” He says he made friends with whom he still keeps in touch.
And Samantha Vinokur says her two years in Write on For Israel changed her life.
She immediately became a campus activist at the University of Pittsburgh, assuming the leadership of the school’s sole Zionist organization during her freshman year, and eventually forming a second, more-political group. “I shook up the campus,” sponsoring frequent pro-Israel programs and serving as a Zionist spokesperson in confrontations with critics of Israel. “I became the go-to person.”
She says she “absolutely, absolutely” feels confident making a case for Israel. “I have no trouble speaking to anyone. I have the grounding. I have the facts. I don’t get flustered.”
If the classmate who asked her in high school why her people (the Israelis) were “doing this” to his people (the Palestinians) asked her that question today, she would have a better answer, she says.
“Now I’d be able to reframe the question,” Vinokur says. “The real question is how can we make a workable solution to an age-old confrontation?” she would say. “When will Israel get a partner for peace?”
“I credit Write On with the start of all this.” It triggered her interest in becoming a fulltime advocate for Israel, she says. “I don’t think any other organization really brings together the passion and the knowledge in the same way. Write On taught me the balance between the two.”