Naomi Firestone-Teeter: Between the Pages of the Jewish Book Council

June 5, 2019

The Jewish Book Council (JBC) has officially been a nonprofit since 1944, although its roots go back to 1925. JBC’s origins are connected to the efforts of a Boston librarian by the name of Fanny Goldstein, who founded Jewish Book Week in 1925. The idea spread to other cities and evolved into National Jewish Book Week, eventually developing into the JBC. The organization is dedicated to supporting and celebrating Jewish literature. Naomi Firestone-Teeter joined the JBC as an assistant in 2006 after graduating from college and held a variety of positions in the organization before becoming executive director in 2015. 

Jewish Journal: What are some of your responsibilities as executive director?

Naomi Firestone-Teeter: It’s wide-ranging — everything from managing our team and the day-to-day operations including billing and accounting to working closely with the JBC’s leadership on the larger vision, goals and strategies for the organization. I’m very hands-on with programs and editorial and content we produce. It’s really a hybrid role that’s comprised of many moving parts.  

JJ: Can you tell us about the Jewish Book Council’s “Visiting Scribe” series hosted on JBC’s blog, PB Daily?

NFT: It’s a way for us to provide the reader an opportunity to get to know authors a little better — to get to learn about the person behind the book. This can include things like exploring the Jewish perspective; thoughts about Israel; Jewish rituals; how they practice Judaism and what it means to them to be Jewish; religion in general; politics; current events; or even the evolution of their book cover. It’s really a chance for readers to learn what drives the authors, what may have sparked their interest in something or their research. And we hope it will inspire our audience to read the full book.

JJ: You have another interesting program, the JBC Network author tours.

NFT: The JBC Network is a platform that connects Jewish authors with programmers around the country in order to reach readers. On one side, we have the authors, and the last few years we’ve actually had over 250 authors who have participated with the program. These are authors who are either Jewish or who have written overtly Jewish content. They get to represent their book out in the community. On the other side, we have a network of program representatives who arrange to have the authors speak at different events. Some of our program representatives include JCCs, synagogues, Hillels, bookstores and community organizations. 

JJ: How has the Jewish Book Council evolved over time?

NFT: One key piece that has shifted dramatically in present times has been the launching of a digital presence, which connects the dots between us and our readers on a regular basis. We publish new content — reviews, essays, interviews, reading lists and book club questions — every week. We also have our annual print journal, “Paper Brigade,” which is over 200 pages of content inspired over the past year of Jewish literature and ideas. The journal and our new, updated website are two channels we use to show readers what’s coming up in terms of books. 

JJ: And has this created a stronger connection with readers?

NFT: Yes, because it’s a way that we can reach more people to let them know what are new topics, new authors and current events. We want readers to see the relevance of these writers, their ideas and their role as thought leaders of the Jewish community — not just during the Jewish holidays or Jewish Book Month. The nice thing is that there’s a low barrier for entry to substantively engage with Jewish ideas or content. 

“No matter what one’s Jewish background, people can see themselves reflected in the range of books and authors featured on our site and in our programs.”

JJ: Are you engaging primarily with Jewish readers who are religious?

NFT: Absolutely not. There’s a book for everybody to enjoy. You can be disconnected from the larger Jewish community and still engage. It’s not institutionally driven. People can engage on their own terms. We reach a wide swath of the Jewish community who may not be fully connected in other ways, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t thinking about their identity, history and culture. Another piece of our mission is covering a wide range of diverse experiences along the path to being Jewish. No matter what one’s Jewish background, people can see themselves reflected in the range of books and authors featured on our site and in our programs.

JJ: The Jewish Book Council has a unique annual award. Tell us about the Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature. 

NFT: It’s the largest Jewish literary award of its kind. The idea is to nurture and support the next generation of Jewish writers and thinkers, giving them a boost of confidence, along with a high monetary award. The Sami Rohr Prize supports high-quality substantive Jewish themes. We alternate years between fiction and nonfiction. The winner receives $100,000, our “Choice” awardee receives $18,000 and three finalists [called fellows] get $5,000 each. But it’s not just about money; we also have a large community that gets together every other year for a gathering of the Sami Rohr Literary Institute that includes a cumulative roster of awardees, judges and advisers to the prize. 

JJ: Do you have book clubs?

NFT: We have over 1,800 book clubs that receive resources from us. We create reading lists, discussion questions and book club guides. We also provide them with additional content to supplement or give context to their conversation. This could be a historical timeline, a content glossary or even recipes. Anything that would help support a book club. The book clubs also receive our annual selection guide that provides 16 recommendations a year, covering a wide range of diverse content. 

JJ: What else should people know about the Jewish Book Council?

NFT: We’re a nondenominational, politically unaffiliated, central resource. We connect our members with Jewish ideas, thought and substance that is accessible to all Jews of all backgrounds.

Allison Futterman is a writer living in North Carolina.

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