The very thought of editors of Jewish publications gathering in an Oxford manor house cries out for a Rodney Dangerfield punch line.
Yarnton Manor was once a holding of the Spencer-Churchill family, as in Princess Diana and Sir Winston. Juxtapose its dark wood-paneled rooms and sweeping Jacobean gardens with a bunch of hunch-shouldered journalists whose profession is rarely accorded much respect inside their communities, much less among landed gentry -- you get the picture. It was easy for me to sit in the manor's 17th-century great room and imagine generations of Spencers and Churchills cartwheeling in their graves.
But a decade ago, the house was purchased by a Jewish family who turned it over to the Oxford Centre for Hebrew and Jewish Studies. The American Joint Distribution Committee's (JDC) International Centre for Community Development chose it as a convenient midway point for a first-ever gathering of 13 editors and publishers of Jewish publications from North America, Europe and Israel.
The early September meeting was the brainchild of Alberto Senderey, the JDC's director of international community development. Senderey is a model Jewish professional, and not just because he invited me as one of five Americans included for the four-day symposium in beautiful Oxford.
An energetic, optimistic burst of Argentine energy, he recognized that Jewish media have a unique and underappreciated perspective on Jewish communal life. In increasingly dispersed and diverse communities, Jewish newspapers and magazines can serve as virtual community centers, a place where all voices can be heard and where, in the best of circumstances, all a community's important issues and problems examined.
Jews have a complicated relationship with the Jews who write about them. On the one hand, they want us to do the stuff of journalism -- gather and present news accurately without fear or bias, hold leaders and institutions accountable and present a diversity of opinions, regardless of their popularity.
On the other hand, they want us to do all this without offending them, attacking them, upsetting their fundraising or giving press to points of view they despise. The relationship is often rocky and inherently uncomfortable. We are outsiders writing about outsiders -- the Jews of the Jews.
But the JDC, which works with endangered and emergent Jewish communities from South America to Siberia, understands that for many Jews, the local Jewish press is their first or even main connection to Jewish life. In a time when traditional forms of Jewish expression -- synagogues, JCCs, federations -- have struggled to retain the loyalty of a new generation, Jewish papers and magazines continue to thrive.
Consider this nugget mined from the 2000-01 National Jewish Population Survey: For the majority of Jews in the vaunted 35-44 age range -- the ones whose child-rearing will set a new generation on the path toward Jewish life -- the No. 1 nonreligious Jewish activity in which they engage is reading a Jewish periodical.
In this age group, 47 percent of Jews belong to a synagogue, 45 percent contribute to nonfederation Jewish charities, 25 percent contribute to their local federation. But these numbers are easily surpassed by the 68 percent who read a Jewish newspaper or magazine.
To some degree, this statistic reflects the general promise of niche publications in an increasingly fractured media market. New Times' multimillion dollar purchase this week of former rival LA Weekly's parent company, Village Voice Media Inc., is but one example.
But another possible explanation for this astonishing statistic -- how likely is it that 68 percent of Jews would agree on anything? -- is that newspapers and periodicals offer a low barrier of entry to Jewish life. There's no membership, no dress code, no judging. In some cases, as with this paper, there is zero cost, as well. That means people who want to affirm or explore their connection to Judaism can do so easily, every week, at the Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf.
The fact that young people aren't joining Jewish organizations doesn't mean they're dropping out, said conference participant Gary Rosenblatt, editor and publisher of The Jewish Week in New York. "They're looking for new ways to identify."
For a new generation of Jews, the Holocaust and even the Six-Day War are ancient history. The touchstones of Jewishness have shifted, and media outlets, which can change content monthly, weekly or, on the Internet, hourly, are poised to adapt more quickly than synagogues or large organizations. That makes these long-undervalued participants in Jewish communal life more important than ever.
Not surprisingly, Joshua Newman, the editor of the controversial, youth-skewed Heeb, was one of the editors invited. His magazine has successfully explored the intersection of Jewish and secular culture, and has attracted a large audience of the even more elusive 18- to 35-year-old Jews. It has done so, in part, by tweaking or ignoring coverage that traditional Jewish magazines emphasize: Israel, the Holocaust, organized Jewish life.
One thing we editors agreed on was that the nature of our profession is, like much in the Jewish world, changing.
In the not-so-recent past, much of what we wrote about, even as exposes, was parochial compared to the general press: which Jewish organization did what to whom, the latest from Israel, the most notable Jew of the week (astronaut, movie star, baseball player -- you name it).
But beginning with the front-page news of the Oslo accords, Jewish news became international news. Certainly after the election of George W. Bush and the terror attack of 9/11, the coverage of faith, ethnic identity and how they dovetail with the world at large took on a vital importance.
"The Jewish story became the national story," said J.J. Goldberg, editor of The Forward. "Religion reporting became central to all reporting."
The intifada and the subsequent vilification of Israel in much of the mainstream press only upped the ante for Jewish papers. "We became a source for more accurate reporting," said Meir Waintroter, who edits L'Arche, a Parisian-based monthly.
In fact, the reality of anti-Semitism in our daily professional life was one glaring difference between the American editors at the conference and their European and Eastern European counterparts. We Americans rarely look over our shoulders to see which non-Jewish enemies will take issue with what we print. For some of our colleagues, such trepidation is a fact of life.
When it comes to such issues as Israel and anti-Semitism, Jewish papers are able to provide depth and context that mainstream papers sometimes overlook.
But here's the balancing act. Just as we recognize our unique role in providing deeper coverage of issues Jews care about, including unsavory aspects of our own communities, there's also an element of outreach to our mission. If we define "Jewish" too narrowly, we risk alienating large segments of our current and potential readership.
"If we narrow ourselves to issues that are only Jewish defined," said one editor, "we fail to appeal to readers who feel that Jews have a universal message. We end up creating a Jewish community where most Jews don't belong."
And there are not just a few of those Jews. Originally the youth-oriented magazine Heeb sought to "speak to an alienated voice" of disassociated and disconnected young Jews, said Heeb editor Newman. In so doing, the magazine effectively created a new Jewish community.
That, ultimately, is the threefold power of the Jewish press: to strengthen Jewish community through the practice of journalism, to extend the opportunity of Jewish communal life to as many people as possible and, not incidentally, to provide a first draft of Jewish history itself.
Or, as my fellow Yarnton Manor pal Winston Churchill once said, "History will be kind to me, for I intend to write it."