I call Debra Rubin, editor of the Washington Jewish Week (independently owned, circulation of about 12,000), Wednesday, August 4, 2004.
She speaks softly.
"I was raised Reform in Brooklyn and New Jersey. I attended religious school regularly from sixth through twelfth grade. I went to Rutgers College, where I majored in Human Communication with a Mass Media concentration. I graduated in 1980. After a variety of part-time and short-term jobs, I got a job at what is now known as the New Jersey Jewish News where I stayed for 18 years until August 1999.
"During that time, I took six months off to work at a [T-shirt imprinting] trade magazine. Then I was offered the position of News Editor and promised I would never be bored again. That promise came true. Then I later became Managing Editor.
"I became Editor of the Washington Jewish Week in August 1999. It was time for me to do something else and I liked the opportunity of working at an independent paper rather than a Federation-owned paper."
"Is there a noticeable level of difference in the freedom you have to operate?"
"Yes. You don't have an executive director looking at articles pre-publication. You don't have the kind of control that can be exerted by a Federation."
"I would bet that much of the censorship was implicit?"
"Different executive directors would handle it in different ways. Some would tell you outright that I don't want something in the paper. Others would ask for changes, to put a quote in a different place, to put a more important person higher up in a story."
"Did that drive you crazy?"
"It was interesting how they covered the Charles Kushner story."
"I thought they did a good job. There was a time when I don't think that would've happened."
"How much of your vision have you been able to fulfill for the paper?"
"A lot [within the limited resources she has]. One of the first things I did was add a Community Voices column. I call it our version of Newsweek's My Turn. We do more community coverage than the paper had done before and focus less on the Middle East. The publisher heard from a lot of people that that was why they didn't get the paper. That it was directed at that narrow audience [looking for original Middle East reporting].
"According to the latest demographic study, there are 215,000 Jews in greater Washington D.C."
"What do you love and hate about working in Jewish journalism?"
"I love the opportunities, variety, that I have been able to learn so much about the Jewish community and Judaism and been exposed to so many different types of Jews.
"I hate the lack of resources. Sometimes people in the community would rather not see a Jewish newspaper be a newspaper. Why is it that when there's a scandal, someone will be more likely to talk to the secular newspaper than the Jewish newspaper?"
"What's the median age of your readership?"
"Would you like to lower that?"
"Of course I'd like to lower that. What paper wouldn't?
"We're trying to do a larger variety of profiles. We've instituted a column called Capitol Shmoozing. We have a rotation of four columnists in their 20s to 40s. We're trying to do articles that may appeal to people in different ways. For example, in the past year, we did a feature about single women who, by choice, have become mothers."
"What is unique about the DC Jewish community?"
"That it is spread across three distinct geographical areas. Washington, Maryland, and Northern Virginia. They're all considered part of greater Washington but they are all paying taxes, voting and living their lives in three different jurisdictions with three different JCCs operating independently.
"The community in Washington is less interested in being a community. A lot of Jews here don't identify as a Jewish community. They don't live here in Washington as a Jewish community even though they may call themselves Washingtonians."
"What did you think of the book The New Rabbi?"
"I wasn't one of its biggest fans. I didn't think it was the kind of thing that would have a wide audience. I didn't think that people who worked outside of the community would have much interest in that kind of book."
"Did you have much of an interest in the book?"
"I read it. I skimmed portions of it. I thought the writer focused too much on himself. I became somewhat more interested as I saw people whose names I recognized.
"I know there was that controversy about people being upset about the description of one particular rabbi [balding Perry Rank who had to wear his kipa sidesaddle]. That was a shame the writer felt it necessary to point that out. I don't think it was so pertinent to the book."
"If you were writing about an analogous situation, you wouldn't write about the way someone was wearing their yarmulke because they were bald?"
"Are rabbis public figures?"
"Pulpit rabbis are definitely public figures.
"A few years ago, a rabbi here was accused of misusing discretionary funds. We wrote multiple stories about what was going on."
"Do you look at your stories through the prism of -- is it good for the Jews?"
"No. I think about stories through the prism of -- does it make sense to do this story. Does it serve a purpose? In the case of this rabbi and the discretionary funds, people need to know what is going on. Other synagogues need to stop and say, are we handling this right?"
"Gary Rosenblatt views Jewish journalism as another form of Jewish communal service, such as working at a Federation."
"When I worked in New Jersey and I was considered a communal worker, I always balked at that description."
"I'd punch anyone in the nose if they called me that.
"When was the last time you got excited about an article you read on American Jewish life?"
"I can't think of anything in particular. I'm not looking at it the way you said. I'm looking to see what stories are other papers doing, whether we could do a similar story. How did they handle something we already did. What kind of columns are they running."
"How often do you get caught up in the pleasure of reading an article on American Jewish life?"
"Occasionally, I say to myself, I have to take this home and read it. And end up not doing that because I have a pile of other things to read at home. Once a week or so I'll read through the whole thing."
We chat about Lilith Magazine's excellent reporting. "I'm amazed that they are able to get the material to do it. Maybe there is something about a publication not being a community publication that makes people feel more anonymous. One of our greatest difficulties has been finding people willing to talk. Maybe it's part of community journalism. I will be introduced to somebody as the editor of Washington Jewish Week and the person will say, 'Don't quote me.'"
"Did that also happen at the New Jersey Jewish News?"
"I don't recall that happening much."
"Because they knew they were safe."
"I don't know."
"The more scared people are, the more respect it shows for your publication."
"We'll start asking questions to see if there's really a story, and we'll get accused of digging for dirt."
"As though that's a bad thing."
"We have people who are still holding a grudge over a series of articles (on a kosher Chinese restaurant) that were done in the early 1990s, four editors ago. It doesn't matter that it is new management and an entirely new editorial staff."
"How many serious lawsuit threats do you have to deal with?"
"I remember one travel agent in New Jersey threatening to sue us because we used their logo in our news article that included them."
"Do you do same-sex wedding announcements?"
"We've never been presented with one. I certainly would run it."
"Do you have men seeking men ads in the personals?"
"I've never seen one."
Debra belongs to a Conservative synagogue and keeps kosher.
"How come people don't go up to you and vent about the paper? Because you're such a gentle soul?"
Debra laughs. "It could be. They have to know who I am before they can walk up to me and vent."
"Do you feel appreciated for your work?"
"For the most part. I even had a rabbi say to me that I had the hardest job in the community."
Debra, a president of the AJPA from 1995-98, is not fluent in Hebrew.
"Are AJPA conferences hard-drinking occasions?"
"No. I wouldn't know from such things. I'm not a drinker, but I've never come across anyone who's been hard drinking at one of these conferences."
"Have you seen anyone light up a joint?"
"Snort a line?"
"Just imagine you look up and there's Gary Rosenblatt snorting a line."
"You're stretching. I'm one of the boring interviews. You're trying to find something..."
"I want to hear, 'Gary Rosenblatt was snorting a line of coke with me at the AJPA conference.'"
"You give me nothing."