February 21, 2020

Ask A Rabbi: Rabbi Barry Schwartz on Working with The Jewish Publication Society

Rabbi Barry Schwartz

The Jewish Publication Society – “JPS,” for short – is about the great books of Judaism. Its mission is to promote Jewish literacy and self-understanding through the publication of books of enduring worth. As “accessible scholarship” is noted to be JPS’ unique niche, JPS’ works represent the highest levels of scholarship, written in a popular manner.

Notable JPS releases include The JPS TANAKH, esteemed Bible commentaries and hundreds of scholarly and popular works of history, philosophy, and literature. You may not realize, however, that the Jewish Publication Society operates in participation with University Of Nebraska Press, which released “Winning Westeros: How Game Of Thrones Explains Modern Military Conflict” earlier this year; “Westeros” was notably co-edited by Max Brooks, the accomplished son of Mel Brooks who penned the best-seller “World War Z.”

To learn more about the JPS, I had the pleasure of doing Q&A with Rabbi Barry Schwartz. Schwartz is the director of the Jewish Publication Society and oversees acquisitions, content development, and other critical aspects of what JPS publishes.

Darren Paltrowitz: You are both a rabbi and a very active person within the publishing industry. Was it always the plan to be both?

Rabbi Barry Schwartz: I was a congregational rabbi for 25 years when the unique opportunity to lead JPS arose. I have loved JPS since I was a kid, so I said “yes.”

DP: How did the opportunity to work with the Jewish Publication Society come about?

RBS: My predecessor in the position decided to retire. I had served as a volunteer on the JPS editorial committee some years back, and some people remembered me. I was in the right place at the right time, and the rest, as they say, is history. I’ve been privileged to lead JPS for the last decade.

DP: JPS is the oldest publisher of Jewish books in the United States. Where do most of the books come from? Are they pitched by literary agents and authors? Or do you and team seek a lot of the books out? 

RBS: These days many of our books are commissioned for our various series, like the JPS Bible Commentary series. But a significant number also come to us straight from authors.

DP: Is the Jewish Publication Society funded entirely by book sales? Is it aided by grants or outside supporters?

RBS: We have always counted on donors to supplement our books sales, and we have always been non-profit.

DP: What is coming up for you as a rabbi?

RBS: I love being a congregational rabbi and have been one for 35 years. My part-time pulpit fits in perfectly with my JPS work. I use JPS books all the time to lead Torah study. My congregation, Adas Emuno in Leonia, New Jersey will celebrate its 150th anniversary next year. 

DP: What do you wish more people knew about life as a rabbi

RBS: It’s a demanding profession but a true calling to help lead the Jewish community.

DP: Do you have a favorite holiday?

RBS: I am an environmentalist, so Sukkot on a perfect fall day is really special. 

DP: On the Hanukkah end, how do you feel about Adam Sandler’s legendary “Hanukkah Song?” 

RBS: I wish he had written a good song… and made a good movie. 

DP: Finally, any last words for the kids?

RBS: Don’t stop reading — a good book opens up a new world.

More on the Jewish Publication Society can be found here.

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