As the executive director of the Jewish Book Council for over 20 years, Carolyn Starman Hessel has been called the “Jewish Oprah.” She helped launch the careers of writers such as Nathan Englander, Jonathan Safran Foer, Francesca Segal and Dara Horn. Most of all, she made a small Jewish organization into a powerhouse of the literary world and, despite her diminutive size, turned herself into one of publishing’s biggest movers and shakers.
Hessel, 77, who retired from her post in March 2015, joined the Jewish Book Council in 1994 after working as a Hebrew school teacher in the Reform movement, and later as a staff member of the National Education Resource Center of the Jewish Education Service of North America. Though she knew little at the time about the publishing world, she built the Jewish Book Council into an organization with a yearly budget of almost $1 million.
During her tenure she launched the Jewish Book Council’s signature initiative, the annual try-outs. Coinciding with the Book Expo America convention, authors give two-minute book presentations to the organizers of Jewish book fairs and communal events from around the country. Currently, more than 200 authors and 150 organizers attend the event, with many going on to tour as part of the Jewish Book Network. Hessel also helped found the $100,000 Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature, the biggest literary prize in the field. Though she may have now left the top spot at the Jewish Book Council, her influence continues to be felt.