50th Anniversary: "Not my dream job"

By Rabbi Rachel Esserman

I never wanted to be executive editor of The Reporter. I resisted taking the position for almost a year. Then it became clear that I was doing the job even without the official title and the Search Committee had no new candidates for the position. I finally went to Sima Auerbach, who was executive director of the Federation at that time, and said that instead of continuing as interim executive editor, I would make the position permanent. I quickly changed my mind, but it was too late. I went back to her a few days later and asked if I could renege on my decision, and she said no. 

There were several reasons I originally refused the position both times the two permanent editors I worked under left. My staff has heard one so many times I’m sure they are sick of it: “If I wanted to run a business, I would have gone back to school for two years for an M.B.A., rather than go through six years of rabbinical school, which included 10 months in Israel.” Another reason is that I make a good second in command (as I did with the two editors I’d worked with) and liked that position. A third reason – and perhaps the most relevant – is that with my hearing impairment I can’t pick up the phone and schmooze with the directors of the Federations with which we worked. Even with my cochlear implant, hearing on the telephone is not easy. That difficulty also occurs during in-person meetings. I always have someone with me and, even then, have on numerous occasions discovered that I completely missed a topic that had been under discussion. 

What do I like about the job? I love writing, including the publicity I write for the Federation. For me, The Reporter’s purpose is an educational one, whether it’s letting people know about events they’ll want to attend, books they’ll want to read or ideas they might want to consider. We’ve interviewed people for articles I refer to as “Jews doing interesting things.” (If you know someone who is, and is local or has local ties, please let us know!) Many people see my page two column as leaning toward the left (I don’t deny I’m a proud liberal), but I try to be fair and honest. That’s also true with my book reviews: the word most used by publishers to describe my reviews is “thoughtful.” I am proud of that. Besides, I read on my free time and if I really don’t like a book, I stop reading it. Sometimes the book just isn’t good; sometimes I recognize that it just doesn’t appeal to me. That’s one reason I enjoy my newest column, On the Jewish Food Scene,” so much. There I am deliberately as opinionated as possible, which is actually a great deal of fun and a wonderful change of pace. 

But the bulk of my job is not fun and games. Finances have always been a problem and our staff has grown smaller and smaller. I used to say one good thing about being executive editor was that I didn’t have to edit (and sometimes basically rewrite) the local articles for our paper anymore. That once again is part of my job. But I’m not the only one doing more. Our layout editor is also handling a great deal of what our production manager used to do. The positions of bookkeeper and advertising representative have merged, at least for now. We have a very good part-time graphic artist who does work for both us and the Federation. The Reporter is a nonprofit organization (which is owned by the Federation) and our advertising has never covered our costs. For that, we need our allocation from the Federation and our contracts with other Federations to produce their papers. Unfortunately, we now only publish one other paper. Sometimes we struggle to pay our bills, even though we try to keep our expenses to a minimum. But fewer businesses are advertising in newspapers and members of our community are moving away. This is not an easy time for the Federation or for the paper.

What is the future of The Reporter? There’s no way of knowing. I prefer a print copy and am fine with being biweekly. But at some point we may have to go monthly or entirely online. The Federation and Reporter Editorial Committee have already been discussing this. In the meantime, I’m enjoying being a medium sized fish in a small pond. It’s wonderful when people read my writing and comment on it. I was shocked the first time someone told me they bought a book I recommended. I was stunned when someone remembered a silly page two column I wrote and talked about it a year later. (They remembered my writing about baseball? I don’t even like baseball!) And the food column: to my surprise, that is generating the most comments. Of course, there are the writing awards I’ve won. But to me, they are just the sprinkles on the icing on the cake. Knowing that people read and enjoy the paper means a great deal to me. So, while this may still not be my dream job, it does have its wonderful moments.