I chat by phone Thursday afternoon, June 24, 2004, with Lisa Lenkiewicz, the 47-year old managing editor of the Connecticut Jewish Ledger.
"What are the obstacles to doing good Jewish journalism?"
"You're going to hear this from everybody. It is difficult to be part of the Jewish community yet report on the Jewish community as an independent journalist. There is a concept in Judaism of lashon hara (evil gossip). Many news stories get put through the filter of -- is this good for the Jews? Another newspaper would not even consider that. Are we a Jewish newspaper or are we a newspaper for Jews? What are our boundaries? What will cause harm in the Jewish community? Do we have a responsibility not to cause harm in the Jewish community? Are Jewish newspapers communal institutions? Or are you independent?"
"What do you think is the best Jewish newspaper?"
"The Jewish Week (New York). I think the writing is of a high quality. It is on the cutting edge of trends. It does a good job of covering New York, almost an impossible task because New York is so huge. Under the steady hand of Gary Rosenblatt, it is a serious good newspaper."
"I don't think I ever recall a negative book review in The Jewish Week."
Lisa laughs. "I don't either. The Forward is very intellectual and has a whole literary section. The Jewish Week can't do that but at least they inform people about the hot Jewish books out there and interview authors."
"Would you call it a compelling read?"
"I think Jonathan Mark is a wonderful writer. I think it is a must read if you are interested in Jewish journalism."
"Would you call it a Federation paper?"
"Yes. You don't like The Jewish Week?" asks Lisa.
"I think it's dull."
"One of the criticisms you hear about Jewish newspapers in general is that they are dull. They are not exciting reads."
"Yeah," I say in my best duh tone.
"That is a challenge to all of us editors.
"What are you looking for? What are you going to find that is not there?
"We're not all hip young magazines. We're Jewish newspapers. What do you think is missing?"
"It is so sanitized. I know Jewish life. I know about the egos and peacocking and scamming and posturing that go on but I don't read about them in my Jewish newspaper, the Jewish Journal."
"But is that news? That there's backstabbing and infighting?"
"I don't recognize the Jewish life that I participate in when I read the Jewish Journal or any other Jewish paper, but I do recognize it when I read Postville and The New Rabbi."
"I found The New Rabbi a good read. A number of people were furious with him. But it was juicy gossip."
"It was delicious."
"It was complete and total gossip in that book but it totally shed a light on the whole rabbinic search process. It was wonderful."
"That book got me excited. I realized that Jewish journalism can be exciting."
"You are right. The feedback I got was that it was pure gossip. I know rabbis who know rabbis and those people are greatly hurt by what was written about them."
"Oh, poor tender sensitive babies," I sneer to myself.
"Well, tough," I say.
"A tremendous amount of damage."
"That's what Gary said."
"That's what you hear from everyone."
"They didn't get to set their own image this time and it was shocking for them."
"They're control freaks."
"You take a rabbi, a nice guy like Perry Rank, and your heart goes out to him. That these people said X, Y, and Z about him. I think it made them look bad."
"Yeah, I think it made them look bad."
"Yeah, but his [relative] who lives here, they were just mortified to see their private life exposed like that. I kept saying, it makes everyone else look bad. Not Perry. It still didn't matter. It was very very hurtful."
"I find it amusing that these rabbis who are such enormous consumers of journalism, guys who read The New York Times every day, but as soon as soon as some regular journalistic techniques are applied on them and their friends, they go ballistic."
"Yep. Except, when it happens to you, you don't want to see your life dragged out in front of everybody.
"I can't disagree in many instances with your assessment that Jewish newspapers are too dull. We work hard here to get away from the 'Who poured the punch at the Oneg pictures.' We've gotten away from being a shul bulletin. We're doing nice features. We write about wonderful people doing wonderful things. There is that pressure to write about the Federation annual meeting. Because of the ebb and flow of the Jewish news cycle, it's the same Rosh Hashanah and Passover stories. I like to think we are always looking for fresh angles on things. Where Jewish newspapers fall down is that we don't have the resources to do a good job in investigative journalism. That's why I was impressed with what Gary [Rosenblatt] did with the Baruch Lanner [molestation] stories. There's not enough of that."
"Do you think there's a generation gap?"
"There is. Our readers are 60 and above who don't want to see anything bad about the Jewish community. All of us have recognized that if we don't start reaching out to a different generation, there won't be a Jewish newspaper to wrap their fish in. I'm relatively young in the Jewish newspaper world. At the Jewish Ledger, we run events for singles. We have dances, lectures, speed dating, a night out at the ball park. We've had over a dozen marriages."
"When did you begin in Jewish journalism?"
"I went to the Washington Jewish Week in 1982. I moved to the Ledger in 1992."
"Did you see big stories you couldn't get into the paper?"
"Oh, sure. An executive director for 40 years here is dismissed from a synagogue. He comes to us and says he was dismissed for age discrimination. He's going to file a lawsuit. Then the rabbi calls you up and says, we would greatly appreciate it if you would not run that story. And the publisher says ok. Or a rabbi is dismissed from the synagogue for abusing the discretionary fund account. I call the rabbi. He says, I won't speak to you. This is a legal matter. You are not to print it. You are not able to get anything on the record. No cooperation from anyone in the synagogue or the community and you're not able to run the story. Or, the Jewish Federation executive director settles with the Federation. People come forward and say he's verbally abusing women. The board decides to pay him off and ship him out. And you can't get the story."
"According to the Awareness Center, there are a lot more abusive rabbis than just Lanner."
"I called the women who had run-ins with [the executive director]. They hung up the phone on me. Or said they were scared and wouldn't talk to me. The Federation officials wouldn't talk to us. There were several stories that were vital to do and I am disappointed that we didn't do them. A funeral home gets a fine from the state for malpractice and bilking people and we get beat by the Hartford Courant. They got the information first. Eventually we got to run the story, but some major advertisers came in here and said they would pull their advertising. We sat down with them. We heard their side. We eventually got to do their side but we were completely beat by the secular press on this. What is it about Jewish newspapers that they don't have the staff, the resources, the money, and the ability to be ahead of these stories?"
"What about the status? I've had journalists complain to me that journalists for Jewish papers get treated like teachers in the community. Nebuch."
"The salaries... As managing editor, I get treated nicely by the people in Connecticut. I always feel that people want me to speak and want to be in the paper. I just got an honor from some kashrut commission for my community service of twelve years. True, they were trying to fill their brunch. I don't always feel like a second-class citizen to the people we cover. Yet the first inclination is to say, I'm not talking to you. And pressure is put on you to not write stories that could harm the Jewish community."
"Do you really think the Jewish community would be harmed if these stories ran?"
"Not me. I wouldn't be in this business if I thought that. I keep trying to make the point that the Jewish community can only be strengthened if we are accurate reporters of what is occurring. Not just on what our Jewish institutions are doing but on what's doing at our Jewish institutions.
"People want to open up a Jewish newspaper and feel good. They want to see all the good works that they are doing. They want to hear about their neighbor. They want to see the awards. When I go out speaking, I find that the most popular part of the paper is the obituary page. Then they want to see the engagements, the weddings and the life cycle events. It's that insular feeling of community that they are interested in. If they want to read investigative journalism, they'll go to The New York Times.
"I keep saying that Jewish newspapers should start a gossip column. That would really sell newspapers."
"Call it Lashon Hara corner."
"So-and-so sold their house for this much and they're moving to Florida. This is what people are talking about.
"Most Jewish journalists don't want to go to The New York Times. They like their hometown paper. They feel like they are making a difference.
"Larry [Cohler-Esses] tried for so long to break into non-Jewish journalism. I remember when Larry got an interview with Mike Wallace of 60 Minutes. Mike told him that he was the best Jewish journalist in the country but you've got to get out of Jewish journalism and get some daily experience. And it was years before Larry was able to get out of Jewish journalism.
"Charles Fenyvesi was at the Washington Post, then Bnai Brith magazine, then Washington Jewish Week, then he got a job at US News & World Report. That was our big excitement. One of ours made it into an important magazine. It doesn't happen that often.
"You need a section in your book on Jewish editors who've been on the job a long time. Robert Cohen, 36 years in St Louis. Marc Klein, a number of years in San Francisco. This is more than a job for them. You may sat it's boring but they really believe in what they're doing. I would say that most of my peers are happy with their job. We wish the salaries were higher. For full-time reporters at our paper, the salary range is between $20-30,000. The pay scale is pretty similar in the secular world. But how do you entice someone coming up in the world of journalism to choose this path? Gary has worked hard to attract young Jewish journalists with seminars and internships."