A controversy over the renaming of a Philadelphia-area day school is raising questions about the delicate relationship between the local Jewish newspaper and the federation that funds it.
Alumni of the former Akiba Hebrew Academy, the country’s oldest community day school, have been up in arms over the school’s decision last year to accept $5 million from the chairman of the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia on the condition that the school rename itself in memory of the donor’s brother.
Now, some of those alumni are protesting the fact that when they tried to air their objections to the name change in Philadelphia’s federation-sponsored newspaper, the Jewish Exponent, the paper turned them down and even contacted school representatives.
The debate over the paper’s actions raises a thorny and persistent question that pervades much of local Jewish journalism: When Jewish newspapers are sponsored by a federation, can their reporting be truly independent?
“This incident points out the importance of a community newspaper paper having editorial independence from the local Federation,” wrote Ari Goldman, a professor at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, in an e-mail to the Forward. “Given economic necessities, I recognize that total independence might be an impossible goal but the paper should do its best to be an independent voice.”
The controversy dates back to March 2007, when Akiba Hebrew Academy announced that it had accepted a $5 million gift and would be changing its name. The gift came from Leonard Barrack, a prominent Philadelphia securities lawyer and the newly elected board chair of the Philadelphia federation. (A onetime finance chairman of the Democratic National Committee, Barrack is, ironically enough, supporting Hillary Clinton.) At Barrack’s request, Akiba renamed itself the Jack M. Barrack Hebrew Academy in honor of his older brother, who died in a plane crash at age 27.
The name change raised hackles among alumni, not least because the school had juggled donations and money previously. In late 1998, Ruth and Raymond Perelman, parents of billionaire financier Ronald Perelman, offered to donate $2 million to the school if it would substitute the Perelman name for that of first-century sage Rabbi Akiba. Alumni and students protested the proposed name change in advance of the school board’s vote, and the name change failed to pass. In the case of Barrack’s gift, the board members announced it after they had voted to accept. (Full disclosure: Jane Eisner, who was nominated this week to become the next editor of this newspaper, is a member of the school’s board.)
In response, aggrieved Akiba alumni, particularly from the class of 1971, organized to protest the name change and to urge the board to reconsider. As part of that push, a number of alumni submitted their arguments to the Exponent this month in the form of a letter to the editor and a full-page advertisement. Both charged that the school had allowed federation politics, and Barrack’s stature, to influence the board’s decision.
The Exponent would publish neither the advertisement nor the letter. Jonathan Tobin, executive editor of the Exponent, said that he chose not to publish the letter because the topic was no longer newsworthy.
“I would say we reported what happened, and we certainly printed comments about it,” Tobin told the Forward. “The issue resolved itself.”
Meanwhile, the paper’s advertising department rejected the ad submitted by the alumni. Alumnus Dan Kaplan says that the paper’s general manager told him that the paper would not accept the ad because it was “divisive and contrary to what the Exponent is attempting to do in the community.” In turn, the Exponent forwarded the advertisement to the school’s incoming headmaster, who e-mailed Kaplan and asked to talk.
“I was absolutely flabbergasted that some editor at the Jewish Exponent would have the nerve to say they’re not going to run the ad, and not only that, but show it to Akiba,” Kaplan said.
A call to the publisher’s representative requesting comment on the paper’s handling of the advertisement was not returned before press time.
Goldman told the Forward that the Exponent’s refusal of space to the alumni “goes against common journalistic practice.”
“If certain alumni are unhappy about the arrangement in Philadelphia, their comments should definitely be part of the debate,” Goldman wrote. “That is the obligation of a good newspaper, to make sure that different voices are heard.”