Nextbook taps new president

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SAN FRANCISCO (JTA) – Nextbook has some scratching their heads over its appointment of New York businessman and longtime Modern Orthodox lay leader Morton Landowne as president.

Despite his copious business experience, Landowne is not well known in the publishing world or the Jewish community outside Modern Orthodox circles.

At the same time, his communal experience could prove helpful in addressing what some critics describe as Nextbook’s failure to establish a wider reach in the Jewish community.

The innovative non-profit organization promotes Jewish culture through its online magazine, literary events and Jewish Encounters book series.

Landowne played down his Jewish communal experience in a phone interview with JTA, but readily touted his wide cultural interests and business acumen.

“It’s certainly an out-of-the-box choice,” he said of his hiring, “but I have a great appreciation of culture, and knowledge of the importance of meeting budgets and making things happen on time.”

Landowne sees his role as continuing to shepherd Nextbook down the path set by the organization’s founding and outgoing president, Julie Sandorf, her staff and the board.

Sandorf, who is leaving at the end of December to head the Charles H. Revson Foundation, expressed satisfaction with what Nextbook has accomplished so far.

“We started five years ago as a project to bring Jewish culture and literature to people all over the country,” Sandorf said, “and we have been able to grow that vision into what some have called the crown jewel of Jewish culture and literature.”

Much of Nextbook’s work involves creative partnering with non-Jewish organizations, a conscious effort to bypass existing Jewish institutions to reach Jewish readers, as well as to reach beyond the Jewish reading public.

More than 200 communities have participated in “Let’s Read About It: Jewish Literature,” a library-centered reading and discussion club devoted to Jewish books that Nextbook runs in partnership with the American Library Association.

Nextbook partnered last spring with the University of California, Los Angeles and Yiddishkeit L.A., and the Centro Primo Levi in New York to sponsor daylong festivals of Jewish literature and culture in those two cities.

The festivals were held in prestigious forums and featured literary heavyweights such as former U.S. poet laureate Robert Pinsky, Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright David Mamet and New Republic editor Leon Wieseltier.

Jewish Encounters – a critically acclaimed, multi-year series of books about great Jewish historical figures and themes – involves a partnership with Schocken Books. Dozens of churches, synagogues and day schools have signed up for the One Book program to discuss those books using Nextbook reading guides.

Some in the field have only good things to say about those efforts, particularly the Web magazine.

“It’s gorgeous,” said Elise Bernhardt, president of The Foundation for Jewish Culture, formerly known as the National Foundation for Jewish Culture.

When Bernhardt took her job a year ago, she reviewed Nextbook’s products and decided they were so well done that she would focus the foundation on other areas. She advised her board to fold its literary supplement in the face of what she considered Nextbook’s better online offering, and put more energy into grant-making to artists and scholars.

As for the Jewish Encounters series and the authors’ events, Bernhardt said Nextbook provides “a real model of how to use the Web and how to move out into the community; the partnership with libraries – it’s genius.”

Carolyn Hessel, director of the Jewish Book Council, praised the online magazine, calling it “really wonderful,” and also said that Nextbook was “lucky to have a terrific editor like Jonathan Rosen” – author and founding editor of the Forward’s Arts & Culture section – heading the team editing the Jewish Encounters series.

“They are heightening awareness of Jewish literacy, and in that sense, whatever they do is good,” she said.

Despite the high praise, some in the Jewish literary world quietly grumble that given its budget, Nextbook should be reaching a wider audience but instead remains mired in the Jewish ivory tower.

One critic cited Sandorf’s lack of Jewish communal contacts when she took the job, arguing that Nextbook is “an entity unto itself” that “doesn’t work well with other organizations” in the Jewish world.

Sandorf readily acknowledged that she had no communal background when she assumed her post, but pointed to the numerous partnerships Nextbook has already clinched as proof of its success in expanding its reach. At the same time, she said, it’s always possible to reach out even more.

She noted that Nextbook has forged partnerships with Jewish and non-Jewish entities “who share our values of high quality and accessibility, and who have proven track records of accomplishment.”

“In Jewish life, we established partnerships with organizations such as RAVSAK, The Centro Primo Levi, The American Jewish Historical Society, LIMMUD, The New Center in Boston, YiddishKeit LA, synagogues and day schools,” she said. “We have distributed Nextbook Readers to Hillels, and CAJE members across the country. Nextbook has also been represented at Jewish communal meetings and conferences, including the General Assembly, the Association for Jewish Studies, URJ, and others.”
Sandorf said that titles in the Jewish Encounters series have sold more than 104,000 copies; the organization’s Web site now boasts about 350,000 sessions a month; the Nextbook Reader is sent to 200,000 households; almost 2,000 people attended Nextbook festivals in New York and Los Angeles, and an average about 6,000 took part in programs in Chicago, Seattle, and Washington.

While Sandorf lacked communal experience upon first taking the Nextbook job, Landowne has plenty: He was president of Edah, a modern Orthodox think tank, and of Lincoln Square Synagogue in New York; was on the founding board of the Jewish Community Center of Manhattan; and is a trustee of the Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary of Yeshiva University, from which he has a bachelor’s degree.

Landowne for now is trying to catch up on his Nextbook reading list. He’s just finished Ruth Wisse’s “Jews and Power,” the latest publication in the Jewish Encounters series, and is about to start “Foreskin’s Lament” by Shalom Auslander, whom Landowne noted writes for the online magazine.

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