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Still Necessary: Journalists and Rabbis in the 21st Century

This is an excerpt of the keynote speech given November 11 at the annual meeting of the Jewish Reconstructionist Federation in Newport Beach, Calif.

I understand that your movement is struggling with major challenges, some of them institutional, some existential. So is journalism today. I have no magical prescription to offer, but I do think it is worthwhile to understand our commonality as we all search for a way forward.

There’s no doubt that in journalism as it is practiced and consumed today, the traditional role of editor and gatekeeper is less relevant and respected. I still spend a great deal of time with my editors deciding what stories are worthy enough to go on the front page of the Forward each week. This is our considered judgment about what’s most important in our newspaper.

But there’s no front page online. Many of the readers of our website come to us through Facebook — a friend telling them about a story that she liked. A friend, not an editor. And as we know, the Facebook definition of “friend” is not what it used to be. A total stranger can have more influence on the popularity and impact of a news story than a journalist of 30 years.

Here I see resonance with organized Jewish life. One of the challenges all denominations face — the non-Orthodox ones, anyhow — is to maintain a role for the rabbinate and religious leadership. I’ve seen the authority of the rabbi descend from being the hallowed leader on high to the guy or girl next door.

This humbling trend has, in many ways, been healthy. The rise of competent lay leadership has brought with it creativity and innovation. My most satisfying davening experiences are with a tiny Kabbalat Shabbat group that meets weekly in my neighborhood and a High Holy Day service that a bunch of us have organized for more than 20 years. No rabbi is in charge in either place.

And yet, personally, I still need a rabbi — not necessarily to lead services, but to preside over life cycle events, to offer pastoral counseling, to teach, to model the best in Jewish life, to uphold our values in the wider community. Just as I hope that readers still value the gatekeeper function of an editor, and recognize that true journalists take the trouble to verify facts, sift through the irrelevant to find the important, and search for context and meaning.

In a sense, the proliferation of sources for news and opinion makes that traditional role even more necessary, and perhaps even viable.

I know there’s a lesson here: a message about taking the essence of what society needs — in journalism’s case, the need for honest, probing investigative and enterprise reporting — and find ways to do it with a new business model and new delivery systems. As you strategize about the future of Reconstructionist Judaism, this may suggest a way forward.

There is another point of commonality in our situations, and it has to do with community. The trend in journalism is personalization, individualization: My news, when I want it, what I want to read. Don’t like sports? Ignore it. Don’t care for foreign news? No need to click on those stories.

Once, journalism helped create and reinforce a community of readers, viewers, listeners — of citizens. Now that community has splintered into 500 cable TV channels, and countless sources for news. One of my central missions as editor of the Forward is to maintain a sense of community among our readers and members. The Forward’s readership in print is largely outside the New York metropolitan area, spread out across the country. I think that’s because many people subscribe to the paper to connect to other Jews, to feel informed about news and cultural happenings, to reflect upon Jewish opinion.

This challenge mirrors that of the broader Jewish community, and its varying subsets. Whether it’s in discussion of promoting “peoplehood” — the new buzzword of the Jewish Agency — or a more blunt recognition of the tribal quality of our Jewish identity, we depend on Jews feeling connected to other Jews.

That is the great gift of religious life. As much as one’s inner spirituality is important and worth nurturing, we are and always will be a group-oriented religion, needing a minyan to pray, reinforcing our historical memories at Passover and Hanukkah, concentrating on continuity every time we daven.

So the challenge for me, and for you, is to respond to the trend of individualization with fresh and compelling arguments for community. To me, that implies both rights and responsibilities within a group. We have to combat the presumption, especially among younger Jews, that everything — a story read online, a Birthright trip to Israel — is free. No payment required.

There is a cost of belonging, and the leaders in our respective fields have to prove that what we offer is worth that cost, not as if we have products to be bought or sold, but because that is what is commanded of us as Jews, and as American citizens.

And we have to be platform agnostic. I’ll explain.

The revolution in journalism is not only about the nature of content, but the way it is delivered. We no longer think of stories as comprised largely of words, published with ink on paper. Stories are words, images — still and moving — sound, interaction; they are multifaceted and fluid.

For too long, journalists saw the Internet as the enemy, because it robbed us of our traditional business model, pierced our monopoly with readers and scrambled our sense of importance. Now we are realizing that not only is it here to stay, but that when used wisely, it can help us practice journalism with even greater depth, impact and reach.

I suggest that as you embrace the future of Reconstructionist Judaism, you also think about being “platform agnostic” in your own terms. But do so with confidence. For journalists, one of the greatest casualties of the convulsions in our economy is a lack of confidence in our relevance and identity. The Forward I edit is far more limited in its scope than the Forvertz of Ab Cahan, which had three-quarters of a million daily readers from coast to coast in its heyday. I can’t bring back that time, but I can approach the future with the firm belief that what we do is unique, excellent and essential to our community. I am certain all of you in this room can say the same thing about the Judaism that you practice and seek to maintain and grow.

Jane Eisner is editor of the Forward. Contact her at [email protected]

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