Oops…Our 20th

The news these days is gruesome, so it’s difficult to feel celebratory. The brutal slaying of Ilan Halimi, a young Jew, by a gang of mostly Muslim anti-Semitic thugs in Paris; the fatal riots over a Danish cartoon; the death toll in Iraq — no wonder I overlooked a sort of milestone last week: The Jewish Journal turned 20.

Yes, honey, I forgot our anniversary — call it a guy thing.

Jewish Publications of Los Angeles, Inc. put out the first Journal on Feb. 28, 1986. We’ve produced a weekly paper for the Jewish community every week since. Many L.A. Jewish papers have come and gone; we’re by no means the longest-lived.

A Santa Ana printer named Lionel Edwards founded Los Angeles’ first English-language Jewish paper in 1897, the B’nai B’rith Messenger. It continued publishing in various forms for just over a century. Publisher Herb Brin founded the Heritage in 1954, and that paper lasted until 2002.

A group of men with ties to The Jewish Federation created The Jewish Journal to serve as an independent source of news and analysis for the community. Founding editor Gene Lichtenstein set a high standard for the paper’s coverage. At a time when it was economically dependent on its then-largest subscriber, The Jewish Federation, he fought for the paper’s editorial independence. (The Journal and Federation ended their subscription relationship last year.) Gene also sought out polished writers and thinkers, such as Yehuda Lev and the much-missed columnist Marlene Marks, and focused on stories that resonated beyond purely parochial concerns.

The first issue of The Journal featured a cover photograph of local anti-bussing activist Bobbi Fielder, and an accompanying story about the growing strength of the Jewish right, a story that, like a Hollywood action flick, we’ve been rewriting with different actors in the lead ever since.

The fact of our anniversary struck me as I was preparing remarks for a talk Saturday night at Temple Ramat Zion in Northridge. Frankly, it wasn’t an appearance I was looking forward to.

I had agreed to speak to congregants almost a year ago, at the invitation of the synagogue’s rabbi. Steve Tucker was an easy person to say yes to: witty and kind, and an unceasing fan of the paper.

Then, on Nov. 10, Rabbi Tucker’s car veered off a road near Yosemite National Park. Police ruled the fatal crash a suicide. Rabbi Tucker left behind a wife and three children, and a congregation in deep shock and mourning.

The Journal reported on this tragedy in two stories that recounted what happened, outlined the circumstances that preceded the suicide and summarized the life and contributions of a much-beloved man.

We received a lot of criticism for how we reported the story. Many of the rabbi’s admirers felt we stained the reputation of a good man by reporting the police department’s conclusion that Rabbi Tucker took his own life. They said we added to his family’s already unbearable burden. Influential people within the Jewish community tried to quash the story. The Los Angeles Times, after all, wrote nothing about what happened. When our reporters made calls, some hung up on them.

“The day after it happened,” a congregant told me last weekend, “I came here and everybody was really angry — they were angry at The Journal.”

In many ways, what happened during this sad time reflects the challenges of Jewish journalism.

“We see ourselves as professionals struggling to balance a commitment to both journalistic integrity and communal sensitivity,” Jewish Week editor Gary Rosenblatt once wrote. “But we know that others see us either as troublemakers trying to stir and spread controversy, or shills for the Jewish establishment, papering over communal discord — or both.”

We are part of the community we report on, for good or for ill. And there is a natural tension between a community’s desire to spread good news and be seen in the best possible light, and journalism’s role as a watchdog and truth-teller. As journalists, we believe the community is best served by having access to accurate information. But tell that to a synagogue or organization in the midst of scandal, or tragedy.

A passage in the Torah goes to the heart of this tension. “Thou shalt not go about as a talebearer among thy people,” reads Leviticus. The proscription against slander and gossip, lashon hara, would seem to circumscribe a Jewish paper’s content to births, marriage and death announcements — what we call hatches, matches and dispatches.

But the same sentence continues: “Neither shalt thou stand idly by the blood of thy neighbor: I am the Lord.”

In other words, this biblical admonition strongly suggests that sometimes we must reveal what we can when doing so will help those in trouble.

It is a delicate balance. It’s more pleasant to be the bearer of good news than bad, but we realize that to do our job well, we must print both.

When my invitation to speak at Temple Ramat Zion wasn’t rescinded, I expected congregants to excoriate The Journal for adding to their pain. Indeed, early on, a congregant expressed exactly that view in no uncertain terms.

I explained that, in the end, despite our own qualms, we chose to report on the circumstances surrounding Rabbi Tucker’s death in order to set the record straight, and to quell the ongoing spread of false rumors.

Imagine my relief when several people in the audience stood to praise us.

“You came through for us,” one man said. “You helped us understand.”

People in the audience applauded. Several more said that by reporting the truth, we shed light on an otherwise inexplicable act.

Twenty years ago, Jewish newspapers were often seen as an adjunct of communal boosterism, or as relics of a time when religion and ethnicity mattered more. Now the stories we cover — the Halimi tragedy, the riots in Denmark, the struggle against terror, democracy (or lack of it) in the Middle East, the rise of Hamas, a nuclear Iran — are crucial to Jews, and also vital to the wider community.

In other words, our work matters. Which means that more than ever, we have a responsibility to engage our task with seriousness and diligence.

We’ve begun our year of anniversary celebration with a cute stamp on the masthead — and we’ll continue it with a special issue in June and, we hope, some community-wide events as well. Most importantly, we’ll honor this year and this tradition by doing our jobs week by week.

I am grateful to those who had the vision to create and support this paper, the people who work so hard to produce it, and you, our readers, for sticking with us, in good times … and controversial ones.