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Conversation with Gary Rosenblatt

“A lot of American Jews, including young people, want to feel good about Israel and, if it looks complicated, I don’t think most of them turn against Israel; I think they turn away from it”.

By Cindy Mindell

Gary Rosenblatt has been editor and publisher of The Jewish Week of New York, the largest Jewish newspaper in the U.S., since 1993. A native of Annapolis, Md., he came to the position after serving as editor of the Baltimore Jewish Times for 19 years.

Rosenblatt has won numerous journalism awards from both the Jewish and secular press for his writing, and was a finalist for a Pulitzer Prize in 1985, the first time an article in the Jewish media was cited in the competition. His series of articles in 2000, on a rabbi accused of abusing teenagers for three decades, won several national awards and has been cited as a landmark in Jewish investigative reporting.

In 2013, Rosenblatt published Between the Lines: Reflections on the American Jewish Experience, a collection of some of his most thoughtful and award-winning “Between the Lines” columns from The Jewish Week over the last two decades.

He will discuss his book and work on Monday, March 23 at the Jewish Community Center of Greater New Haven.

Rosenblatt spoke with the Ledger about Jewish journalism present and future, and antisemitism on campus.

Q: How does your book relate to American Jewish life?

A: The book is divided into sections: Community, Media/Journalism, Exposés and Aftermath, Tradition, Israel, Personal Stories, and The Lighter Side.

All told, I think it reflects pretty well some of the big themes not only that the Jewish community faces but in my own life and being in Jewish journalism for over 40 years – the last 21 here and 19 years before that at the Baltimore Jewish Times.

In some way, I’ve seen a lot of change in the community, in the big issues, and in other ways it’s like déjà vu: we’re still talking about the Israelis and Palestinians coming together and Israel facing big threats; we’re still talking about is there going to be a future for American Jewish life; what do we do about our young people? And in terms of Jewish journalism, it’s still about worrying about a “shanda for the goyim” – we worry about how the non-Jewish community will look at our problems; how do we support the community as part of our role and at the same time be critics sometimes. Maybe the specifics are different but a lot of those issues are very much the same.

Q: Your investigative work on the Rabbi Baruch Lanner child-abuse scandal in Baltimore stirred up a lot of public outrage and controversy in the Jewish community. What was it like to reveal this difficult subject to the world?

A: I include several columns on this topic in the “Exposés and Aftermath” section of the book. It was a great shock for many people when the article first came out: for many it was “here’s this rabbi who’s been accused of abusing kids for over 30 years and nothing really happened about it,” and other people’s reaction was, “Everybody knows about Rabbi Lanner.”

One issue is, if this kind of activity happened now, would it still go on, how would it be dealt with? I think in some ways, as a community, we’ve acknowledged that there’s a problem, we have a vocabulary for it – a number of institutions like schools and camps and synagogues have a protocol to deal with these kinds of issues. On the other hand, this stuff still goes on way too frequently and in many ways it’s still solved by the institution, quietly letting the person go and then they show up in another community and do the same thing. All in all, I think the role of the Jewish journalist in our community is all that much more important.

Q: Where do you see the future of Jewish journalism?

A: In some ways, I think the future of Jewish journalism is tied to the future of journalism in general, not only in American society but around the world: are people going to pay to get information or are they just going to get it for free? In some ways, we are subject to the same concerns. I personally think that people will always be willing to pay something to get solid information and analysis. I read somewhere that there are more blogs than people in the world. It’s not like there isn’t enough information out there; it’s way overwhelming and you read things and you don’t know what to believe or not – just because it might look authentic doesn’t mean it’s true.

One of the benefits for The Jewish Week is that we still have our print edition and our circulation is pretty solid but we have more people each year reading us online. Our website has a lot more content on it than in the print edition. But in terms of advertising, a small percentage of our overall advertising is online. It keeps growing each year, but it’s certainly much smaller than our print advertising.

One benefit is the age of our readers: a lot are over 50, and many of them are still used to or want to hold a newspaper in their hands. When I read the newspaper, I will often read something that I hadn’t planned on reading but that catches my eye – it could be a sports story or an obituary or anything. I think that the experience of reading online is more focused: I want to check the sports and the world news and that’s what they’ll look at. We also have a lot of traditional readers who are not going to go online on Shabbes. But for younger people, it’s just an alien experience because they’re used to reading things online.

Somebody described it like jazz, which is not as universally listened to or appreciated, but it has a very loyal following. So, I think that reading news will be more of a specialty for some people; they’ll still be willing to pay for it, but as far as how much, and what do you get for free and what do you have to pay for, it’s a big challenge for all of us.

Q: How does The Jewish Week attract younger readers?

A: One of the phrases I’ve learned is “alternative revenue streams,” which means that I’ll pay for something besides the product you’re offering. So, in addition to The Jewish Week newspaper and The Jewish Week website – which, at this point, is still free – we’re exploring various degrees of a pay wall. One of the areas that we focus on is young people; we have a publication just online, called Fresh Ink for Teens. It used to be a supplement to the paper about 10 times a year and now it’s all online. We encourage teenagers anywhere in the world to contribute essays.

We have a program, “Write On For Israel,” that’s been around for 12 years, since the second Intifada started, geared toward training young people in high school to be prepared for dealing with the Middle East when they get to college. It’s a pretty intensive two-year educational program. People have to apply, send essays and recommendations and be interviewed. We’re looking for people who are serious about their concerns about Israel. We don’t care so much about their politics, but we care that they’re interested in Israel. It’s for 11th- and 12th-graders and we and meet with them [weekly] during the academic year. Their senior year, they go to Israel on a nine-day trip and meet with journalists, government officials, Israel Defense Forces officials, Supreme Court justices. The whole idea is based on what we were seeing when the second Intifada came. I was visiting college campuses and talking to Hillel students and they felt inadequate in countering some of what was happening on campus. I think they felt committed to Israel in their kishkes, but they couldn’t articulate it or they didn’t have the facts. So this is really a program to give them the knowledge and the moral confidence when they get to campus to be leaders in terms of either writing about Israel or being active in pro-Israel groups on campus. We just had our trip over President’s Weekend with 45 kids who come from public schools, private schools, and Jewish day schools.

[The program] was started by the AVICHAI Foundation and us in 2002 and has had an interesting journey. AVICHAI had started it in Chicago through the Jewish paper there, and they started one in Cleveland and one in San Francisco. AVICHAI is going out of business in 2020, they’re sunsetting. So, because they’re going out of business we should suffer? They weaned us over a three-year period – they gave us 100 percent of funding, then it was 75 percent, 50 percent, 25 percent, and as of this past year, we’re on our own. They helped us hire someone to do fundraising, to keep the program going. Our board is committed; we think this is a really important issue.

We now have had 300 or 400 students who have gone through the program and some of them now are counselors and advisors to the program; they’re connected to each other. It’s had a real ripple effect.

Q: What do you make of the increased attention recently on antisemitism and anti-Israel activity on college campuses?

A: I recently met with Linda Scherzer, who was the director of the program from the beginning. She lived in Israel for a number of years and was a TV journalist and worked for CNN and Israel TV. When we started the program, we thought it would last for a couple of years; it was during the Intifada. She says that, in some ways, it’s a lot worse today than it was in 2002 in terms of Israel’s position internationally and BDS [boycott, divestment, and sanctions against Israel], antisemitism. I thought the case at UCLA was pretty frightening because it wasn’t about some rabid group of anti-Israel students having a demonstration. [During a Feb. 10 hearing, four UCLA student government members questioned, for 40 minutes, a Jewish student’s ability to make unbiased decisions on cases in which the Jewish community had a vested interest. Confirmation of the student’s appointment to UCLA’s student government judicial board subsequently was stalled until a faculty member stepped in.] It’s so pervasive that [it manifests in] almost innocently asking a Jewish student if being Jewish is going to bias you in some way. It’s very upsetting, very worrisome.

On the other hand, there are so many groups – StandWithUs, CAMERA, and others – that specifically deal with the problem on campus; there’s a new film out. I don’t want our kids to be afraid to go to college. I think in some ways the Jewish community overplays the scope of the problem. I’m not ignoring the problem, I think it’s a serious problem. When it gets to Europe, it’s very real. In other places, I think we have to be careful about overemphasizing it and instilling fear in younger people and we might have very different definitions of what antisemitism is.

There are hundreds and hundreds of colleges that we don’t hear about [in terms of anti-Israel activity] and I don’t want to be misinterpreted in saying this is not a serious problem – I think it is a serious problem that needs to be dealt with. But “Show us a silver lining and we look for a cloud” applies here: we are a people that worries a lot. I think it is manipulated by some organizations: you get direct marketing from different groups and it sounds like doom is around the corner and in some ways were doing great. So I just think that we always need to keep things in perspective.

One of the problems we don’t talk about is the fact that faculty plays a key role sometimes and there are Jewish faculty with pretty anti-Israel positions on the Middle East. I think that’s under-explored.

Most Jewish students, unfortunately, are not very interested in the Middle East. I think, for a lot of American Jews, including young people, they want to feel good about Israel and if it looks complicated, I don’t think most of them turn against Israel; I think they turn away from it. Like math or physics: if I can’t figure it out easily, I’ll focus on something else. Most Jewish students don’t get into it. There’s a protest or something on campus, they’re just going to avoid it. But we want young people just to be knowledgeable.

I think it’s a mistake to say that Israel is this amazing democracy that never has any problems with its minority, that it never does anything wrong because then the first time a young person is confronted with some kind of experience or some fact that isn’t what they’ve been trained to think, it kind of undermines everything else they were brought up to believe. I think it’s important for them to understand the complexity of the problem and the enormous effort that Israel makes to be a democratic country and live a normal life.

Between the Lines in Lunch and Learn with Gary Rosenblatt: Monday, Mar. 23, 12 noon-2 p.m., JCC of Greater New Haven, 360 Amity Road, Woodbridge. For reservations: (203) 387-2522 /ruthg@jccnh.org.

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