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Robert Cohn
August 3, 2004

"I grew up in St. Louis. At age ten, I put out the Cohn Times. It had a circulation of four -- my own family. In college, I was editor of Student Life, the undergraduate newspaper. I later became editor of my law school paper, The Writ.

"I graduated from Washington University with a degree in English in 1961. I got my JD [doctorate in law] in 1964. I subsequently earned additional bachelor degrees in Political Science and Philosophy.

"Out of law school, I worked for five years for a county elected official as a press secretary, speech writer and staff attorney.

"In 1969, I was offered an opportunity to take a job at the Jewish Light for a couple of years as a stepping stone. Here I am 35 years later.

"I took over July 1, 1969."

"Are you a Federation paper?"

"We are affiliated with our Jewish Federation. From 1947-63, our publication was called the St. Louis Light. It was a house organ. It was directly published by the Communications department of the Jewish Federation. It didn't pretend to be anything other than a vehicle to promote the campaign.

"In 1963, some high powered people in the Communications department and in journalism recommended we follow the model in Pittsburgh and Philadelphia in which Jewish Federation papers would have their own autonomous boards. So there would be a layer of authority in between the Federation and the editor. That arrangement was put in place in March of 1963 and we became the St. Louis Jewish Light. I don't report to anyone at Federation. My boss is the board at the St. Louis Jewish Light."

"What have you loved and what have you hated about your career in Jewish journalism?"

"I've even loved the stuff I've hated. I'll be retiring at the end of this calendar year. What I've loved is to have my words taken seriously. If I had worked at The New York Times, I might've been assigned one beat for 35 years. Here I've been able to do editorials, hard news, interviews, reviews of books, plays and films. When people in my generation pass away, and I've known them since high school, I'm able to do a more personal obit.

"When you first start out, you only want to do the glamorous things. You realize after a while that every aspect of your job can be interesting and challenging if you just have the right attitude.

"But obviously bureaucratic pressures, being caught in the middle of things, occasionally being targeted by different groups in the community... There was a serious challenge in the 1980s over Operation Moses and Operation Solomon. The Ethiopian and Sudanese governments were looking the other way as their Jews were getting out [to Israel]. The Jewish press was warned that if we broke that story, it would stop that immigration. I was president of the American Jewish Press Association. I encouraged my colleagues to respect the request. Unfortunately, a little West Bank newsletter broke the story. That was picked up by Jewish papers in New York and Washington. Then The New York Times and the Wall Street Journal, which had been respecting the embargo, they broke the story and it stopped the immigration for a couple of years.

"I came up with something called Jews Before News. An effort that was successful for two years was blown and people I'm sure starved to death as a result.

"There were a few in the organization who felt that news was news and we shouldn't be directed by Jewish bureaucracy. While I would normally agree, this was an exception. I was supported in this view by Gary Rosenblatt, certainly one of the more independent-minded editors around."

"Gary seems to view Jewish journalism as another form of Jewish service, such as working at the Federation."

"He's worked on both sides of the aisle. He worked for the Baltimore Jewish Times, which was the flagship independent paper. It is owned by the Burger family. They were successful commercially and publisher Charles (Chuck) Buerger gave Gary carte blanche to go where the news was. He did an aggressive investigative report on the Simon Wiesenthal Center that was a finalist for a Pulitzer Prize. He won countless journalism awards. He has the credentials to make those comments. He's been working for The Jewish Week (NY) for a decade, which is still associated with the Federation/UJA of New York City."

Robert, who served as president of his Reform temple (Shaare Emeth, the largest synagogue in St. Louis), says he's fulfilled his vision for the paper. "I wanted it to be more of a literary intellectual paper with Op/Ed pieces. I resisted all kinds of pressure not to cover Meir Kahane when he was in town or people on the far left. I'll be leaving from here to cover a group from the International Solidarity and Stop the Wall movement and a counter-demonstration. We covered an American Nazi party rally and there were a group of communists counter-demonstrating."

"What's unique about the St. Louis Jewish community?"

"That most people grew up in St. Louis. The old cliche is that it is more important where you went to high school in St. Louis than where you went to college. I live in University City, one of the oldest Jewish communities in St. Louis. We have a sense of living in a mostly Jewish community. There are about 60,000 Jews living in St. Louis. The majority are natives. There has been an influx of Jews from other parts of the country and from the former Soviet Union. It's a fairly unified community. There's cordiality between the different streams. The Orthodox chief rabbi, Shalom Rifkin, is a kindly person who gets along well with his non-Orthodox colleagues. We don't have a lot of the bitter divisiveness that may characterize other communities. The issues between the old German and Russian populations was pretty resolved by the mid '50s. The 'Our Crowd' group that Stephen Birmingham describes set up all the institutions and then you had a later influx like my mom's family from Eastern Europe. There are 22 congregations ranging from Agudath Israel to Jewish Renewal."

"How did you like going to AJPA conferences?"

"I loved it. I have three families. My own immediate family. My staff at the Jewish Light. And all these people you interviewed, particularly Gary Rosenblatt and Marc Klein. These are among my best friends. When you've traveled around the world and to Israel 18 times with people like Marc and Gary, you get to be tight with them. I was on a unique trip to Switzerland with Marc Klein. This leader there invited the officers of the AJPA. I've been to about 30 different countries, including Brazil, South Africa, Egypt, Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, Soviet Union. Places I'd never have visited if I had practiced law. I was president of the AJPA nine times."

"How did you feel about the ethics of taking comp trips?"

"It didn't become a major issue. Jewish journalism when we first came into it was a mom-and-pop operation. There were trips that were subsidized by the Jewish Agency or by Israel Bonds. There was a 1976 trip to South Africa that was all expenses paid (sponsored by the South African tourism agency and Pan American Airlines). It was the year of the Suweto riots. It was something we did without thinking about it. Then some of the daily newspapers began to adopt a strict policy of not taking freebie trips. Because of our budgetary challenges and the smallness of our staffs... Usually they bought you there and they didn't try to control what you'd write. There were stories all over the ballpark. It didn't affect how we would cover it. It just got us to a particular location, so we didn't have much of a problem with that."

"If you were to write a memoir about your time at the Jewish Light, what would be some of your themes?"

"I offer a lot of classes to kids in communications departments in different universities about you never know where you are going to end up. I intended to practice law. I was always interested in journalism. I ended up using both skills. I'm the head of the ethics committee of the AJPA. During the important events that affected world Jewry, I felt like I was in a position to do something within my own profession that related to my Jewishness.

"It's also a huge responsibility. Even this interview, where I get quoted in a book. I get calls about the Mel Gibson movie The Passion of the Christ. I'm a spokesperson for the Jewish community about these important issues.

"I interviewed Uri Geller who seemed to really bend spoons. Allen Ginsberg talked about how he expressed his Jewishness through his poetry and life. Adin Steinsaltz, Moshe Dayan, Abba Eban, Golda Meir, Natan Sharansky, Simon Wiesenthal. I interviewed Mordecai Richler, the Philip Roth of Canada. I was having a fantastic interview. I had my tape recorder going. I wasn't taking notes because I wanted the thrill of just talking to him. Then I discovered I had my tape recorder on pause the whole time. I humiliatingly called him and he said, Bob, just come on over and we'll just do it again. I had been told Abba Eban was distant and aloof and I found him kind and accommodating. Elie Wiesel, whenever I would send him a clipping of something I had done, he would always, without exception, send back a handwritten note thanking me for quoting him accurately. These mythic figures ended up larger than life as well as accessible.

"Together with just the ordinary members of the community who have births, deaths, bar mitzvahs, weddings, engagements. Trying to work almost as a rabbi at this stage of my career when there are families in grief. It takes a certain tact to get the story right when you're writing about somebody who passed away."

"Do you run notices when Jews marry non-Jews?"

"We do. We recently approved running same-sex announcements. The intermarriage issue was resolved in 1969. We've taken a liberal approach. If a Jewish family wants to publish a life cycle, we don't inquire [if everyone involved is Jewish]. There were a few papers that tried to enforce a halachic definition of Jew. Did that mean that if somebody was buried and they didn't have a halachicly Jewish mother, we wouldn't run the announcement?"

"What are some of the most interesting things you've had to deal with on the ethics committee of the AJPA?"

"Some of it had to do with plagiarism. A lot of them involved ad scams. Somebody would run a boiler-room operation and will make calls on my advertisers. 'We're with the Jewish newspaper in town.' And an ad that might cost $75 in my paper, they'll get a bill for $350 from this phony publication. We finally got a five-year prison sentence on a guy on account of mail fraud for this type of practice. We've saved tens of thousands of dollars by quickly responding to these ad scams. I had instances of writers who were not paid by publications and usually a phone call or letter from me would get the job done. There were a few cases of people who didn't follow off-the-record rules. A lot of our work is done informally and behind the scenes. Over the years, we had to expel a couple of publications for not following [ethical guidelines]. We adopted some tough standards and now the different law enforcement agencies and Better Business Bureaus look to us like they would look to the ABA (American Bar Association) or AMA (American Medical Association)."

"If somebody got up and gave a speech before 200 people, but prefaced it by saying it was off the record, would you accept that?"

"Sure. That's standard journalistic courtesy. The joke used to be that in Jewish organizations, where they say something is off the record, it was something that was in last week's Jerusalem Post and yesterday's New York Times. In things that have been annoying, it is the real naivete on the part of Jewish leadership about the media in general and the tendency to stonewall things. There are breaking stories in the public domain and it redounds to their detriment than if they had come to the Jewish press first."