On Monday, July 12, 2004, I get Debra Nussbaum Cohen's life story over the phone.
Raised Reform and married to a man raised Lubavitch (a form of Hasidic Orthodoxy), Debra and her family now belong to a progressive Conservative synagogue.
"My father, a Holocaust survivor, was born in Germany. My parents were from traditional backgrounds. They kept a kosher home because they wanted their parents to be able to eat there but they let go of it when my sister and I began wanting to eat at McDonalds.
"I come from a Reform background. We always belonged to a synagogue and my father led the brotherhood. I wrote about that part of my life that the American Jewish Committee published in a book called Jewish and Twenty Something.
"My kids go to a Jewish day school. We are fairly observant and wholly committed. A lot of that has come through my work in Jewish journalism.
"I graduated from New York University in 1987 with a degree in Near Eastern Literature and Languages, but basically studied the religion and sociology of the Middle East. But after attending a Presbyterian boarding school, Blair Academy, I went to kibbutz for a year, where the spark in my Jewish neshama was lit, and then to Skidmore College, which I had committed to attend. For my sophomore year I returned to Israel to attend Tel Aviv University (TAU), then transferred to NYU for my final two years.
"I then went to work writing for the fine jewelry trade press. I loved the perks of traveling first class with the jewelers! Then I bumped into my friend and former TAU-mate Allison Kaplan-Sommer at a 1989 pro-choice rally in Washington D.C. I wanted to take a pic of two older ladies wearing straw boaters labeled 'Hadassah Ladies For Choice' but they were talking to someone, so I waited. When the third woman turned around, it was Allison, interviewing them for JTA, and the rest, as they say, is (my) history.
"JTA had an opening. I was burned out on jewelry and looking for something more meaningful, so I applied. They hired me in 1990. A few months later I got married [and added Cohen to her name].
"JTA was revamping its domestic coverage. 'Continuity' was the buzz. The NJPS (National Jewish Population Study) was being rolled out.
"JTA had been almost exclusively focused on politics but they put me on the beat of Jewish life. I traveled from one end of the community to the other. I was there almost ten years.
"I cut down to almost half time. I had two kids. The salary was cut to half but the expectations weren't. My second child was seriously ill. She had a stroke. I was ready to move on.
"Larry Cohler had just left The Jewish Week. Gary hired me for a half-time job working mostly from home, which is perfect."
"My impression is that you are most famous for your JTA series on rabbinic sex abuse," I say.
"Thank you. I'm very proud of it. It was the first writing on the subject. I worked on it for a long time. It was a challenge to get people willing to talk about something difficult at a time when this issue wasn't at all part of the culture in general."
"As were getting ready to roll the series out, JTA and I were threatened legally by the Skirball Institute (which had hired disgraced Reform rabbi Robert Kirschner). They huffed and puffed mightily. JTA didn't handle it as I wished they would've.
"I was thrilled that all the major Jewish papers coast-to-coast carried the series in its entirety. I had feared that nobody would touch it."
"Who else has tried to make it difficult for you to do your job?"
"In the mid '90s, Sheldon 'Shamai" Englemayer was doing communications for JTS. I'd done a story about Rabbi Joel Roth [a leading halachic expert in the Conservative movement and a staunch opponent of ordaining gay rabbis] about something inappropriate between him and a rabbinical student. Engelmayer was so offended that he sent around an article to all the Jewish newspapers, making it look like a JTA story from me in which he made things up in a skewed effort to do what he considered repair work. He also put something in all the mailboxes at JTS impugning my shul as 'progressive.'"
"Who are some of the other biggest sleazebags you've dealt with?"
"I was writing about Lubavitch. The rebbe was dying. The Messianist thing was at a boiling furor. Somebody in that community sent out an article making it look like it was by me and making things up.
"I take great pride in having a reputation for being fair. Rabbi Avi Shafran from Agudath Israel (represents the fervently Orthodox) congratulated me for a story I wrote on the Conservative movement where I quoted a Conservative Jew who copped to the fact that he wasn't observant. He congratulated me on having the courage to do that. I thought, that's ridiculous. There was no courage involved. I was just doing my job."
"It was effortless for you to write something critical of your own movement.
"Has it been difficult for you to get access to the right-wing Orthodox world, being a woman?"
"Yes. By the same token, being a woman given me access to people and places that men wouldn't have. Women are a lot more powerful and influential, in some ways, in charedi communities than people are often aware of. When I've gone to things in that community, I know how to look the part. Not 100%, because I'm not wearing seamed stockings and a sheitl in Williamsburg, but I can wear a hat and long sleeves. There are journalists who don't mind sticking out as a journalist but I think it is far more effective not to."
"What are the obstacles you've had to overcome to produce compelling journalism on American Jewish life?" I ask.
"There's an endemic, institutionalized fear of offending powerful people. That has filtered down to a level I find ridiculous. It has made it not possible to do stories that seem so parve to me. There is a tendency not to be sharp. There's a fear of running into the people who control the money."
"Have you lost friends over your journalism?"
"No. There have been moments that needed clarifying with friends over things that I've written. When you live in the community you're writing about, you also become friends with some of the people you write about.
"People sometimes assume that they know me because they've read my writing. Some people assume that I'm Orthodox because I write about that community. Some people assume that I'm gay because I've written on gays. Some people think they know my politics because of some of the things I've reported - which they don't."
"What are some of the bravest things you've had to do?" I ask.
"Asking Michael Steinhardt some hard questions, knowing I was arousing his ire. He's one of the most powerful people in the community, and knowing that I might alienate him, and he might remember, that prompted me to need to take a few deep breaths."
"When I was at JTA, one of the most important rabbis in the Jewish world lied about what he'd said because it had bit him in the ass politically. This was a moment of spiritual disappointment for me. This happened quickly, by the time I had gotten back to the office from the press conference where he'd spoken. He absolutely lied about it. Thankfully, Gary Rosenblatt was there with a tape recorder. What disappointed me was that my editor at JTA did not just trust what I was telling him was true but felt the need to verify it.
"When I subsequently saw this rabbi at conferences, I wanted to approach him about it for a long time. When I finally did, a year or two ago, he said he didn't remember. If true, that would make it even sadder. That would make it not extraordinary.
"Rabbis lie as often as anybody else. They're just human beings. More gifted in some ways than many, but also more flawed. We expect so much of our rabbis. They're invested with so much responsibility."
"Do you find any stereotypical differences between the religious movements?" I ask.
"I find that the less observant the movement, the more fabulous a venue it chooses to hold its conventions at! I've always enjoyed going to those really great resorts for the Reform rabbinical conventions. There's an inverse relationship between the frumness and the quality of the hotel."
"What do you love and hate about your work?"
"I love how rich, deep, and meaningful it is. I love that what I do touches lives. I love the consonance between my life and my work. I hate the lack of courage among top editors who are occasionally afraid to make waves. I've had some great ideas I couldn't get in the paper out of fear of alienating advertisers or funders."
"Can you give any examples?"
"I prefer not to.
"The other thing I hate is how undervalued we [Jewish journalists] are. People in the community will talk about the importance of Jewish journalism and the impact it makes, then do nothing to back that up. Journalists in general are poorly paid. I've written about Jewish continuity but [many of the organizations touting the Jewish continuity agenda] will do absolutely nothing to pay for parental leave, to provide enough of a salary so that people can afford to send their kids to Jewish day school. I find that painful."
"What about status? Is it closer to that of a day school teacher?" I ask.
"I think it is much higher. I think it's a pretty glam job. I enjoy seeing my byline and I enjoy, when I meet people, having them say, 'Oh, I read you all the time.' Who wouldn't enjoy that? Part of what makes you a journalist, as opposed to some other kind of writer, is wanting to see a byline. The status, however, is not matched by money.
"I had a friend who went from working for a Jewish paper to a secular paper. She was shocked by the lack of respect that journalists for Jewish papers get from the people in the community. I haven't experienced that. She was struck by how much more respect from sources she received at the secular daily.
"Sometimes I do feel that Jewish newspapers are the Rodney Dangerfields of journalism. Not getting any respect but providing an incredible service that everybody depends on."
"Do you still participate in pro-choice rallies and the like?" I ask.
"What I do as a private citizen is private."