Why we write
On Monday, I gave a talk to visiting young Israelis on a subject near and dear to my heart: Just what is the Jewish Journal?
These Israelis were next-generation leaders, here in Los Angeles as part of the KOLOT program, which exposes secular Israelis to Jewish tradition, something Jews in the Holy Land can manage to miss learning about in their country’s public schools.
I met them at the newly refurbished Wilshire Boulevard Temple. Jewish newspapers, I explained, are the least-appreciated, least-understood and often most-despised institution in Jewish life. To be a Jewish journalist — bearer of bad news, muckraker, gadfly, thorn and nudge — is often to be a minority within a minority, a Jew among Jews.
But Jewish papers have been integral to successful Jewish communities. The first modern one, the Gazeta de Amsterdam, launched in 1675, just 70 years after the first newspaper of any kind. There were Jewish papers in all 13 American colonies and a national Jewish paper, called The Jew, beginning in 1823. L.A.’s first Jewish paper, the German-language Süd-Californische Post, was founded in 1874, when there were only 300 Jews among the city’s 5,500 residents.
Why? Because as Jews disperse, they need an institution that gathers their stories, that keeps them informed and, when necessary, sets a communal agenda.
And in a free country, there’s another important role. As waves of Jewish immigrants came to America at the turn of the century, the great Jewish Daily Forward taught a generation of Jews to be Americans — how to find work and fit in. Today, the role of the Jewish paper has flipped. One of its larger purposes is to teach Americans to be Jews: to connect them to a larger community, to provide a window into Jewish life and learning in a very secular world.
You would think, in a modern world, the demand for Jewish media would decline. The opposite is happening. The Jewish Journal’s print circulation is up, and jewishjournal.com now reaches close to 1.5 million people around the world each month through its Web site and mobile apps. Old Jewish media outlets like The Forward and JTA — formerly the Jewish Telegraphic Agency — have been revitalized; new ones, from The Times of Israel to tabletmag.org to eJewishPhilanthropy.com, are popping up constantly. One reason is that the issues and ideas Jews care about have become the issues and ideas the world cares about: Terrorism. Fundamentalism. The Middle East. The role of religion in politics. How to meld tradition with modernity.
But even more important, in an uncertain world, people yearn for connection, tradition and community. And the first place they look for it — as with anything these days — is the Web.
But, the young tech-savvy Israelis wondered, if Jews can connect on Facebook or Instagram, isn’t that enough? It’s not, any more than WhatsApp can replace The New York Times. There still has to be somebody out there gathering stories, reporting them to the highest-possible standards, providing the most thoughtful and well-edited opinions, and reaching out to as broad an audience as possible, with no greater motive than to connect, inform and inspire.
What the Web offers is a way for Jewish media to reach — for the first time — not just every Jew, but everyone. This is a remarkable moment in Jewish history, when we have the freedom, power and ability to present Jewish life and learning to an unlimited audience. Nothing, I believe, will have a greater impact on the next phase of Jewish history than how we use that potential.
That’s the challenge I left to the young Israelis, one that the (mostly) young staff at the Jewish Journal has already taken on.
As for me, you will not see my column in this space for the next four months. After 19 years at the Jewish Journal, including 12 years as editor-in-chief and two years as publisher, as well, I am taking a four-month sabbatical. I’ll be working on a writing project that needs a bit more focus than I can squeeze in around the long hours that we all put in to make the Journal what it is.
If I can be allowed one parting request, it is this: Support the Jewish Journal. As I told the visiting Israelis, no other Los Angeles Jewish institution reaches as many Jews on a daily and weekly basis. No other institution tells and records our communal story. No other institution reaches as many Jews otherwise uninvolved in community life. For that matter, because we distribute free and on the streets and over the Web, no other L.A. Jewish institution reaches as many non-Jews each and every week.
For all that outreach, the Journal is the rare Jewish nonprofit institution that earns 90 percent of its revenue on its own, through the hard work of our advertising and subscription staff. But that extra 10 percent provides the crucial funds we need to invest in bringing the Jewish world to you, to grow and change along with our community and with the new resources of technology. For that, we very much need you to make a tax-deductible contribution, annually and generously, at jewishjournal.com.
This last part isn’t what I talked about with the Israelis — I’m just asking you. But as I did say to them, shalom v’lhitraot — goodbye, and see you later.