February 2009

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Jane Eisner, Editor of The Forward
In Their Own Words

Jane Eisner

Jane Eisner became editor of the Forward in June 2008, becoming the first woman to hold the position at the influential Jewish national weekly newspaper. For 25 years, she held numerous positions at the Philadelphia Inquirer, including stints as editorial page editor, City Hall bureau chief and foreign correspondent. An active member of the Philadelphia community, Eisner is a board member of the Jack M. Barrack Hebrew Academy, a past president of the Pennsylvania Women’s Forum and a mentor with Philadelphia Futures.

---interviewed by Charlie Smolover

PJV: What was your reaction when you were asked to become the Forward’s new editor?

I was a little stunned when I was first asked to apply for the position because it seemed like a job that would attract people who worked in the world of Jewish journalism. My journalistic background is secular, so I was very honored. I actually studied the Forward when I was in college – the critical role it played in the life of the Jewish community in the Lower East Side. I’ve also been a subscriber for a long time, so there was an emotional connection. And now that my youngest is off to college, the commute was no longer a problem. So it was an opportunity I was ready to explore, but I honestly did not think it was going to happen.

PJV: You mentioned the role the Forward played in lives of immigrant Jews. What is its role today?

It clearly has a very important role. It is the largest, most influential national independent Jewish newspaper – most Jewish papers are either operated by Jewish federations or individuals. We have an obligation to be the conscience of the Jewish community nationwide and we do that in a number of ways. We try to hold institutions and leadership accountable, and you can see that in the way we've covered the Madoff scandal, or the lobbying efforts of various groups around the fighting in Gaza. We are uniquely poised to do that because of the strength of our staff and our history of doing investigative work, like the stories we've done over the past couple years on the kosher meat industry. That is an extremely important story, and not just in the Jewish world. It’s a labor story, a human rights story and an immigration story. I'm not sure who else would or could cover it the way we have.

I also think we can be a convener. Our community is as strong as ever in many ways, but also splintering, often along denominational lines. My hope is that we can serve as an honest broker, a way for Jews to link together, across denominations and age groups. We also have a role to play nationally. Thanks to the hard worked of my predecessors, we are a force in Washington. People read us and listen to us, and what we say carries some weight.

PJV: How can the Forward serve as the conscience of an entire community if it is widely perceived as leaning to the left editorially?

I think it can because we strive above all else to be good journalists, to see all sides of an issue. In our coverage of Agriprocessors, for example, we expressed opinions on the editorial page, but we also worked hard to cover the story objectively and to give space in our pages to those who had differing opinions. We do have a social democratic tradition that goes back to the turn of the century and to our founder, Abe Cahan. But we also have a tradition of strong journalism. Does our concern with social justice impact the kids of stories we cover? Perhaps. But the fact that 78% of Jews voted for Obama indicates that we’re largely in synch with the Jewish community.

PJV: The Agriprocessors story clearly had an impact on the community. What were some of the ramifications of that coverage?

There were people who thought we were going after the Rubashkin family, which has close ties to the Lubavitch community. They thought we didn't understand or appreciate what the Rubashkins were trying to do. From their perspective, the Rubashkins has transformed the kosher meat industry and made it possible for Jews, especially in smaller communities, to have access to a wider array of kosher foods. There were those who felt we didn’t understand that kashrut is first and foremost religious law pertaining to the proper slaughtering of animals and does not necessarily involve the human conditions and considerations that may also be involved.

PJV: That is a complex issue in and of itself, whether kashrut is confined to matters like the sharpness of the blade or perhaps to something wider.

Exactly. And so we've come in for criticism from that part of the community. But there is a bit of a conundrum here. Many of the people who were speaking out about Agriprocessors weren't consumers of kosher meat. How can you complain about the kosher meat industry if you don't keep kosher? It also highlighted the challenges of Jews who want to broaden the ethical scope of kashrut or are interested in the fate of undocumented Guatemalan workers. It was particularly interesting to see the Conservative movement find itself on this issue. In the past, it was usually the Reform movement that took stands on issues of social justice. But in this case it was the Conservative movement that took the lead and made others take notice.

PJV: What is the role of the Forward’s web site and how do you see that role evolving?

The Internet is clearly the biggest challenge facing the newspaper industry. The good news is that our web version has been acclaimed by national and international organizations. We’ve won awards that have gone in the past to The New York Times and The Washington Post. I can't claim credit since it was already here when I became editor, but we’re not resting on our laurels. I think careful readers will notice some changes that we've made over the past few months to make it more vibrant. We hired a new editor, we're posting fresh articles everyday and we’re creating more web-exclusive content. We’ll have a podcast studio in the new offices we’re moving to, so we’ll be able to do podcasts. But it's still all about content. You must have the content if you’re going to drive people to your site – substantive news, analysis, essays, opinion. When the Madoff scandal hit, we had tremendous traffic and posted a chart on our website that listed all the Jewish charities affected. That list was updated regularly and also served to boost traffic. As far as the print version is concerned, I have no doubt it will survive. People like having it around, reading the news one day and then picking it up again later to read the arts section. We also have a highly educated, relatively affluent readership that advertisers covet.

PJV: One of my favorites features of the paper is Forward Looking Back, where you reprint interesting stories from 100 years ago. It represents what may well be the richest archive of daily life in the Lower East Side. Are there any plans to make greater use of this material?

A Living Lens
A couple of years ago, we published with Norton, A Living Lens, a beautiful book with hundred of photos from the Forward archives that documented the lives of Jews during that period. We are working with Norton on another book that will focus on Yiddish literature in the Forward. But with our new capabilities we will be able to do make even better use of our archives.

PJV: It all sounds very exciting.

We're a 111-year-old startup. The Yiddish version started in 1897, but the English version is only 19 years old. It’s a fascinating place to work, too. We’ve got guys in tzitzit and Brooklyn hipsters who play in rock bands on the weekend. It’s a neat reflection of the vibrancy of our community.

To view previous editions of "In Their Own Words", please click here.

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