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Yosef Abramowitz
August 16, 2004

Yossi has his intern listen in (with my permission) on our conversation via speakerphone.

"I went to Boston University. I created a major called Jewish Public Policy. I wrote a weekly column for The Daily Free Press, the third largest daily in Boston. I graduated in 1986. I was elected chair of the World Union of Jewish Students, based in Jerusalem. I published their journal Shofar. Then I went to the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism, graduating in 1991.

"I had to apply three times to the Wexner Foundation to get an application. They said journalism didn't fit into their models of Jewish leadership. In the end, they succumbed and allowed me to apply. They eventually gave me a fellowship under their Jewish Communal Service track that paid for Columbia and my subsequent Jewish studies.

"I wanted to have an independent voice in the community and Columbia prepared me to have that.

"I thought I knew how to write. I came in and they destroyed my writing. The first class was a heartbreaker. All the red marks all over it. I came out with not only the skills, but the mentality of an independent journalist who can think differently and often better than the people who I had chosen to cover.

"In 1992, I became a senior editor at Moment magazine under Hershel Shanks. We pushed the envelope and won tons of awards. The economic situation of the magazine turned around during that time. We did an issue on Judaism and homosexuality, which won a first place GLAAD (Gay & Lesbian Alliance against Defamation) award. We beat The New Republic, the Atlantic... We were the first to cover the issue of Orthodox women rabbis.

"Even though people thought I did a good job, I was fired by Hershel. He called me to his home, which is where he does most of his work. He said, 'Yossi, you're doing great. You're winning all these awards. But I bought this magazine to have fun. Ever since you came on board, I'm not having fun anymore.'

"What would happen is that I would have a different opinion on cover stories and what was covered and I would get the rest of the staff to agree with me.

"I don't want this to sound like a complaint. I have a lot of good to say about Hershel. I learned magazine editing and publishing under Hershel. It was hard for him. He was not as successful as he should've been. That's when I realized I needed to do my own thing.

"I became director for Rabbi Sid Schwartz's Panim el Panim [Hebrew for face-to-face] a four day retreat-like seminar for Jewish teens from around the country [organized by the Washington Institute for Jewish Leadership and Values] for studying text and lobbying and activism. How to apply Jewish values to anything.

"From there, I started a parenting magazine. It failed but it led to to an empire."

Yossi has four kids with his wife [Reform] Rabbi Susan Silverman.

"Where are you on the religious spectrum?"

"I will answer your question, but only to confound you further. I go to mikvah every Friday. I daven with tallis and tefillin almost every day. We keep a vegetarian kosher home. We drive to a traditional egalitarian minyan that is independent of the movements. My kids go to a community day school."

"When did you do your Jewish National Fund story?"

"The story came out in September 1996. It was an expose of one of the top icons in Jewish life. It was brutal. The smear campaign against me on page one of the Forward came out before my articles were able to come out. In the end, we won. They lost $12 million that year. They had to close 15 offices. They threw out their entire professional management team. They threw out most of their lay leadership. They brought in Ronald Lauder as the president and streamlined their organization so that most of their money goes to Israel. It's the one case in modern American Jewish life where an article brought down an institution. I was nominated for a Pulitzer.

"On my wall here is a dozen American Jewish Press Association awards, if that means anything.

"The articles appeared in a dozen Jewish newspapers, beginning with The Jewish Advocate (Boston). Everyone was under pressure from JNF not to run the articles. The people at the Advocate knew me. They basically said, this is an award-winning Columbia-trained journalist whose ethics and motivations we trust. After them, the others followed."

"Which major papers which you would've expected to have run the series, did not?"

"I was deeply disappointed by... I brought the story to Gary Rosenblatt's operation. You would think that would be the place. Instead, without naming a name, it wasn't Gary, a senior person [who? who had his marching orders from above] there... I came with a wheelie. Those luggage wheelies. With four binders packed with all of my sources. Everything to back it up. They had read the story the day before. I came in. I was chewed out for an hour about all sorts of terrible things. Why I was wrong. Who put you on the story? What axe are you trying to grind? Do you have a sister who worked there? It was unbelievable.

"They then had to assign their top investigative journalist, Larry Cohler-Esses, to do his own story, which confirmed what I did. Ever year for the past few years, Gary Rosenblatt has told me that he won't publish me. And he won't talk about why. We know why. I unearthed probably the biggest Jewish organization scandal. They [The Jewish Week] were wrong about it.

"After I left the story, everyone was forced to write about it. JTA did a series. Our numbers were different. They said that 20% of the money went to Israel [also reported by The Jewish Week]. My numbers in 1995 said 3.5%.

"When [JNF CEO at the time of Yossi's investigation] Samuel Cohen died [in 1999]... I do not believe he was a thief. The Jewish Week did the obit. Without naming me, they said a journalist brought him down. I felt that for them, it was a confession."

The Jewish Week 9/17/99 by Steve Lipman

After decades of image building around JNF’s role in developing Israel’s natural and environmental resources, a freelance journalist’s investigation in 1996 revealed that only 20 percent of the charity’s income was actually going to the Jewish state. The rest, according to an independent audit subsequently ordered by JNF, was being absorbed by administrative and educational costs outside of Israel.

From the Forward's 9/17/99 obituary:

The executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, Malcolm Hoenlein, said Cohen had "great integrity."

If Malcolm Hoenlein hails you for possessing "great integrity," what greater honor can there be?

Yosef: "I was greatly hurt and surprised that to this day, The Jewish Week and Gary did that."

"Did you have a history with Gary before this?"

"I wrote for him occasionally. My writing partner [Ellen Grosman] and I did a story for him on the Jews who were left behind in Ethiopia."

"Was part of The Jewish Week's problem with your JNF story was that they are a Federation paper?"

"They are several steps removed from the fundraising. The Jewish Week is still one of the top three Jewish newspapers in the country. They still break a lot of stories and the writing is excellent, comparatively. There were Federation people who were implicated. The treasurer of JNF was a big NY Federation person. Whether or not they carried my story is immaterial, but how I was raked over the coals and chewed out and discounted, that I didn't respect.

"Because I am a combination activist and journalist, people assume my journalism is Yahoo searches. They forget about Columbia. I took my training seriously. I apply my highest standards. The community is not used to that. History has now vindicated me on a number of major stories. I don't write that often. You can't make a living as a freelance journalist."

"Tell me about the smear campaign."

"Call Mark Cohen. He was the JNF spokesman. They had to bring me down. They had to question... They called me names. They said I was in league with... It was beyond people's comprehension, therefore it had to be negative aspirations? I said, what do you mean? Every week my kids go to school and put in their 25c into the JNF cans. Less than a penny of that goes to Israel. It's fraud. I have planted trees and done all that stuff. It's fraud against the Jewish people. They have smeared the good name of the Jewish National Fund, for which they have to redeem themselves by their actions. I'm sorry to be the messenger, guys. I was the messenger long after people tried making changes internally and tried getting it out in the news.

"It was terrible. I was trying to start a Jewish parenting magazine at the time and I was boycotted, and still am, by some people [for fund raising] because I had smeared publicly the good name of a Jewish institution.

"You asked about the obstacles to doing compelling Jewish journalism. It's impossible to make a living doing the kind of stuff I was doing for several years. I was living off my credit cards. It needs to be supported in another way.

"I'll give you another example of censorship and retribution. I was trying to raise money for the Jewish Family & Life (JFL). I was told that if I did an investigative story on another Jewish issue, they were going to kill my money. I did the story and they killed my money."

"Which story?"

"If I tell you, then you'll figure out the name of the institution."

"They need to be held accountable."

"I did an official interview with the head of the institution. I asked for permission to tape. They also taped it at the same time. The interview ended. I put the tape recorder in my pocket without turning it off, just to make some small talk. Instead, I got called to a room and basically got raked over and threatened. I have it on tape."

"I'd like to listen to that."

Yossi laughs. "I don't think this happens that often. I know I've been flip, partly to draw boundaries and see where you are coming from. I think there are far more systemic problems than these exceptions that come up on the hottest stories."

"Have you had many dealings with Malcolm Hoenlein?"

Yossi laughs. "Who hasn't?"

"What were they like?"

"You've got to be more specific."

"Tell me about the times he threatened you."

"I'm an independent. We reach more people than any other media operation in Jewish life. I'm not dependent on the usually mediocre American Jewish press and its censorship possibilities. We have independent funding. We have independent means to get the story out. We have national credibility. The Wall Street Journal did a page one story on one of our issues of Sh'ma last year.

"Malcolm has been dismissive. If you ask him what I do for a living, 'journalist' would not be one of the first three things he thinks of. He also has the endearing quality of being thoughtful, poignant and quotable in addition to the way he bullies many in the Jewish community, including the members and would-be members of the Presidents Conference.

"I am the lay leader of a national Jewish institution (Union of Councils for Soviet Jews, with membership of 14,000 and a budget of $1.5 million) that used to be in the Presidents Conference and is the only organization since the Conference was formed in 1951 that walked out in protest and Malcolm has never ever forgiven the institution or me.

"They had to allow the Council in in the early '80s because of the criteria, but when they did that, they brought in the establishment group, the National Conference for Soviet Jewry.

"We walked out in protest when they honored a dictator [from a country like Uzbekistan, a former member of the Soviet Union]. Five years later, I decided we would like to come back, and Malcolm blocked us, blocked us, blocked us.

"There's little to no accountability in Jewish organizational or political life. Things around Malcolm are part of it. He's very old school.

"I don't write for any of our media properties. I've only written for Sh'ma two or three times since I've owned it. In Moment for many years, I'd write the things that needed to be written.

"It used to be that Jews were not allowed to challenge God. God is all mighty, all knowing, all everything. It was blasphemy, heretical, hence the excommunication of Spinoza. With the Enlightenment, you can say whatever you want about God. The next thing we were not allowed to challenge or question was Israel. Israel was always right. It was the role of the American Jewish community to always support Israeli policies no matter what they do, Sabra and Shatilla. There were people who paid a heavy political price for challenging Israeli policy, and were ostracized by the mainstream. Ariel Sharon today is for a two-state solution. Those people weren't visionary? Now they can say anything they want about Israel. What's left? Jewish institutions. They're holy. We can't question whether they should exist. We can't ask for transparency. We've come a long way from God, Israel and, in my case, the JNF. We're creating golden calfs. The role of the independent thinker, which was the prophet in ancient days, or the intellectual in the Enlightenment days, or investigative journalists today who question.

"There's only so much that kvetching accomplishes. There's only so much that writing about things changes things on their own. I made the leap to trying things myself on my own Web. It's harder than it looks. I have greater sympathy and understanding for the lack of risk taking that characterizes the nature of Jewish institutions.

"If I didn't go to Columbia, I would be half the journalist I am today. I used to like doing these sweeping 3,000 - 5,000 word pieces that would get broken up into a series. I could not have done that without Columbia. We're not training the next generation of Jewish journalists. There are a limited number of slots. The pay isn't great.

"Enterprising stories take time. Wall Street Journal reporters take three or four months on a page one story. Gary [Rosenblatt] used to run an investigative journalist fund [funded by Charles Bronfman]. Some of the stories were interesting. If there was truly an independent fund for investigative journalism in Jewish life, not controlled by Jewish newspapers, which have a conflict of interest... Why would Gary want to do a story that all the newspapers are allowed to run?

"Whether the Jewish newspapers run it or not is immaterial given the Web. Put in on one of our sites, socialaction.com."

"I've spoken to 50 Jewish journalists and editors and you are the only one who is willing to criticize Gary Rosenblatt on the record. Are you surprised?"

"So first there was God. Then there was Israel. Then Jewish institutions. Then Jewish leaders. Then people who control mind share and some resources."

"Now Gary Rosenblatt. "

"I'm not dependent on Gary for anything."

"Everybody wants to be his friend."

"Of course. He was a finalist for the Pulitzer for his piece on the Simon Wiesenthal Center for the Baltimore Jewish Times."

"He's the Dean of Jewish Journalism. The epitome of Jewish Ethics. Mr. Investigative Journalism. All in one."

"They are one of the top three newspapers in the country. They have broken many stories."

Almost every Jewish journalist I interview tells me that The Jewish Week has broken many stories. Then I ask them what I ask Yossi now:

"Can you name any of them, aside from Baruch Lanner?"

Long silence. "I don't know. Nothing of that magnitude. Larry Cohler was on a roll. I just don't remember what they were. Larry was paid by Gary."

"He also had his balls cut off by Gary."

"That's a separate thing I'm not free to comment on.

"Gary was very frank. He said he was not going to publish me. I guess I have less to lose.

"How old is he?"

About 60.

"I'm 40. Please God, I'll be doing the stuff for another 25 years. I have a different trajectory than other people.

"I'm sorry to hear that [about lack of public criticism of Gary]. Not because of Gary Rosenblatt. Because if journalists are going to be the prophets, the independent thinkers, self-censorship, even within our own realm, is sad.

"The Jewish press has totally failed to do a deep enterprising story about what Madonna has been studying, how deep does the stuff go. Everyone reduces this to shtick and kitsch. The secular press is only going to go to a certain level. This is an entertainment story to them, not a religion story. The Jewish press has missed a historic opportunity to go five levels down on this thing. It's not seen as Jewish journalism.

"I went to the reinvention tour. Within that tour and the messages are revolutionary seeds for the world and Jewish life. She gets the meaning of kabbala..."

"What kind of kabbalistic message was sent when she had writhing people simulating sex on stage at her concert?"

"I saw her concert three years ago. It was god awful. I didn't want to be there. She was trying to provoke. I saw her Reinvention tour. I could've taken my two daughters aged 11 and 9. And I'm a bigtime censor [to protect their innocence]. She kept her clothing on. She was hitting major messages that I would want anybody who was concerned about social change to hit. It was a deeply Jewish experience that was filled with integrity and made amends for her concerts three years ago and indicate a certain maturation in her own path. If I had the time, I'd be writing that one."

"I've never heard anyone voice that."

"I'm independent. I have an essay unwritten in my brain about this but I can't do it now."

"I only hear the pat put-downs."

"Of course. The Jewish establishment has to do that. Anybody who sees himself as a Jewish religious or organization leader has to discount this because saying otherwise would be taking a risk, and reducing their own claim to leadership. She knows something that they don't about reaching children. She knows something they don't about aspirations of Judaism. She knows something they don't about how to unite people and bring the world together. That's really dangerous. Heaven forbid that she should have any legitimacy. But their kids fall for her stuff."

"Which of your stories are you most proud of?"

"I did a column in Moment called 'Letters to Adar.' Hadar is my five year-old son adopted from Ethiopia. It was an open letter to him about being from Ethiopia and being a black Jew.

"Another column in Moment said the Jewish community should give its blessing to Jewish women 35 and older to intermarry if the non-Jewish partner is willing to raise the children Jewishly. To this day, I still get in trouble for that column from donors and communal leaders.

"I was the last journalist to spend time with the Rebbe before his stroke. I was with him Friday, Shabbat, and Sunday. Monday he went to the grave of his father in law and that's when it hit him. I wrote a cover story for Moment, 'What if the rebbe dies?' It won first place award from AJPA and got a religion news service grant to underwrite the writing. I felt a personal responsibility to world Jewry to do the story right, as well as to prepare the Lubavitch community for what was likely. It was all taboo. It represents one of the finest pieces of writing I did and had a deep impact on Chabad. I still meet Lubavitchers all over the world who remember the story."

"Why don't you write for your own Internet publications?"

"Because that would be vain."

"How has being a parent affected your journalism?"

"My best writing has been about when my kids were young. It's helped me reconceptualize Judaism away from the needs of institutions to the needs of real people.

"I still get asked by JNF to once a year write an update. They still feel aftershocks in funding. Every year, I ask them to send me certain material and every year they don't send it to me.

"I asked JNF for money for something. I got back a scathing letter. It still smarts them.

"You can say what you like about Seth Lipsky. He raked me over the coals. He never missed an opportunity to knock me down a couple of notches. But boy could he attract talent. If Jeffrey Goldberg devotes 10% of his writing to Jewish topics, that may be a more effective model of how we can harness the power of media to cover American Jewish life. That's one gutsy talented guy. Lipsky brought people through the ranks. The Forward was more exciting. Because they didn't have the money to do enterprising stories, Lipsky could throw a grenade into the American Jewish community with an irresponsible headline and quick story.

"J.J. Goldberg is in an unenviable position. He's one of the best out there... He's a responsible editor. He's smart in ways that Lipsky could never be. The only way for the Forward to command the same headlines and attention is to break investigative stories, which they don't have the staff or money to do. Otherwise, it is muckraking that gets you the same attention. J.J., to his credit, is not a muckraker."

Forward, 12/3/99

Pangs of Conscience:

In August, Moment magazine ran a piece by columnist Yosef Abramowitz accusing the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee of grave misconduct toward the falas mura, a group of Ethiopians that Mr. Abramowitz says qualify for immigration to Israel under the Law of Return but that the Joint and Israel say there is no proof are Jews. Mr. Abramowitz alleged that the Joint's facility in Ethiopia was denying food and medicine to sick falas mura and also that the Israeli government was blocking their efforts to immigrate to Israel, where some of them have relatives. He saw racism at work in these decisions.

Now, in its December issue, Moment is engaging in public soul-searching about whether its should have published Mr. Abramowitz's August column. Editors there had written internal memos about whether Moment should have given the accused parties the opportunity to respond to Mr. Abramowitz in the same issue and whether the piece should have even been published without attempting independently to corroborate its findings. In the face of all this discord, editor Hershel Shanks decided to settle the matter in traditional Jewish fashion: take it to the rabbi. So he and two Moment editors visited the home of Rabbi Yitzhak Breitowitz and asked him if they had inadvertently committed the sin of lashon hara, the evil tongue. The current issue of Moment contains excerpts from the ensuing discussion.

The rabbi said, "If I as a reporter honestly believe that charge to be true, I think there is an absolute moral duty to report it. It's a matter of pikuach nefesh -- saving lives....Certainly any issue of lashon harah would be subordinated to the need to inform the public and perhaps thereby encourage the Israeli government and the Jewish Agency to be more responsible." He also concluded that the editors didn't need independent verification but should instead trust "the reputation of your columnist."

What about the Joint, wondered one editor. Might the article have done damage to its charitable work? The rabbi replied, "The Joint is a sophisticated organization that knows how to prepare press releases. My feeling is these organizations are big boys."

As for Mr. Abramowitz, he stands by his story. He told the Forward, "I'm a trained reporter, and I was on the ground. I'm not afraid of speaking truth to power. This is the biggest scandal in organized Jewish life today." An official at the Joint, Amir Shaviv, declined to comment on the accusations, reaffirming what has been the organization's policy ever since the story broke. The Joint official said it hasn't written a letter to the editor of Moment to comment on the way it was represented. Said Mr. Abramowitz: "They hope it will go away, and meanwhile people are dying. For them, it's about P.R.; for me, it's about saving lives."