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Forward Editor and Reporter Scoop Major Awards

The Forward has won two prestigious Sigma Delta Chi Awards, the national awards for excellence given by the Society of Professional Journalists.

Larry Cohler-Esses won for nondeadline reporting in a nondaily publication for his exclusive interview in April 2012 with Mousa Abu Marzook, Hamas’s second-highest-ranking official.

Image by shulamit seidler-feller

And in the category of investigative reporting at a nondaily publication, Paul Berger won for his coverage of sexual abuse in the Orthodox community, which included stories that showed how alleged abusers were relocating in the United States, how the political establishment in Brooklyn failed to aggressively prosecute some cases and how Yeshiva University overlooked decades of allegations at its high school for boys.

Prior to late 2011, readers had seen glimpses of the ways in which allegations of child sexual abuse among the Orthodox were repressed by the community’s religious leaders. But until the Forward’s coverage, the full extent of the ways in which rabbinic leaders actively intimidated alleged victims from going to law enforcement authorities — and the accommodations by those law enforcement authorities — were barely understood.

Berger, a staff writer since May 2011, sought to work from the trickle of earlier stories that had, by that point, made it into the public domain.

Through his dedicated and sensitive cultivation of sources in this insular community, alleged victims came to trust him, and they spoke with him at length. His dogged, years-long pursuit of alleged perpetrators, communal leaders who discouraged exposure of this problem and government officials who looked the other way bore fruit in 2012.

As well as speaking to alleged victims, Berger visited the home of the current chancellor of Yeshiva University, Norman Lamm, who invited him in. As his wife spoke on the phone, Lamm admitted to Berger that the university knew that staff had had inappropriate sexual contact with students and that where administrators believed allegations were credible they got rid of the suspects. Berger also tracked down a suspected child molester from Australia, the son of a prominent rabbi, and interviewed him on the doorstep of the suspect’s Brooklyn home.

The Forward’s April interview with Abu Marzook sent a stunning and sobering message to America and the world.

Cohler-Esses, who joined the Forward as assistant managing editor for news in December 2008, traveled to Cairo in the midst of the Arab Spring, as Hamas officials appeared to be making contradictory statements. Cohler-Esses wanted to ascertain the real story in an interview that would be on the record, without preconditions and with no topic or question proscribed in advance.

As well as the dangers of the trip, the Forward was mindful of both the historic nature of this opportunity and the risk that it could be manipulated or misconstrued. The interview was believed to be the first time a high-ranking Hamas official had spoken to the Jewish press. That is why Cohler-Esses was scrupulous in conveying the context and nuance of Abu Marzook’s words, in detail and at length.

Abu Marzook showed that Hamas was affected by the convulsions sweeping the region. Most stunning was the fact that he met with the Forward at all, and that he fulfilled every pledge about that meeting. But a careful reading of Abu Marzook’s own words, skillfully transmitted by Cohler-Esses, also highlighted the fact that Hamas continued to be unwilling to forswear violence and to accept the Jewish State of Israel as a reality.

The story drew enormous reaction from readers in America, in Israel and around the world. The combination of planning and bravery, and the meticulous questioning of Abu Marzook to get to the truth of Hamas’s current position, made the piece unique in at least a decade of Western reporting.

Berger and Cohler-Esses will receive their awards at a gala dinner June 21 at the National Press Club, in Washington, D.C.

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