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Around the Jewish World Once Suppressed, Jewish Editors Across Russia Look to Professionalize

January 24, 2002
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During the Soviet era, Jewish newspapers not run by the state had to operate underground.

Now, these papers’ existence is an accepted fact — and improving their quality appears to be the main task ahead.

Under the Communists, there were only state-run Jewish editions, all of them in Yiddish, which was considered by the regime to be the only “language of the Jewish masses.’

In the 1970s and 1980s, a number of underground Jewish periodicals appeared, that were produced by Zionist activists.

Most of them were published irregularly, and the circulation usually did not exceed 100 copies.

Since 1988, however, the number of Jewish periodicals in Russian has proliferated.

There are, roughly estimated, 350 to 400 of them right now in the FSU, and the figure is increasing every year by some 15 percent said Alexander Frenkel, a St. Petersburg-based journalist who monitors the Jewish press in the former Soviet Union.

According to Frenkel, 75 percent out of them are published in Russia and Ukraine; roughly 30 percent are run by organizations affiliated with the Jewish Agency for Israel, the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee or the State of Israel.

Unfortunately, many of these papers are small, underfunded and suffer from a lack of professionalism.

“It is an unprofessional provincial digest,” said Mikhail Gorelik, a Moscow journalist, specializing in Jewish themes, scoffing recently at a weekly with the claimed record circulation of 28,000. “I don’t read it. But my mother-in-law likes it. All our readership is the elder generation,” he said.

Gathering together three dozen Jewish journalists from across the former Soviet Union with American journalists, a conference last week in Moscow attempted to address some of the problems.

The conference featured sessions and workshops on such topics as the roles and responsibilities of the Jewish press, its relationship with the Jewish community, the changing nature of Jewish life in the former Soviet Union and the challenges facing the Jewish press.

At a session titled “Getting the Story Right,” Milton Gralla, a retired publisher of trade magazines, shared his personal, time-tested tips for avoiding mistakes in reporting.

Other sessions focused on how to handle stories that are controversial or potentially embarrassing to the Jewish community. It was clear from participants’ comments that most of these Jewish papers shy away from controversy — either to avoid upsetting their patrons or for fear of retribution.

Vera Perelgut, who publishes a small paper in the southern Russian town of Nalchik, not far from Chechnya, said she felt she could not even write about a recent anti-Semitic incident for fear of antagonizing the ethnic majority population.

And when some of the journalists were asked, hypothetically, what they would do if they got exclusive information that a Jewish leader in their communities had done something illegal, a majority said they would not write a story about it — preferring instead to alert the authorities.

The four American Jewish journalists who participated in the conference challenged their Russian and Ukrainian counterparts to be bold and to make their publications lively and interesting. And judging by the remarks of some of the participants, that message sunk in.

“Our Jewish press is boring,” said Frenkel “We have to do something.”

Doing something with the Jewish press in the former Soviet Union is part of a long-term strategy of Jerry Hochbaum, executive vice-president of the U.S.-based Memorial Foundation for Jewish Culture, who organized the conference,

Hochbaum, who has long been dedicated to the revival of the Russian Jewish community, tries to inject funds and energy into segments of the community that can serve as catalyst for Jewish life. During the past decade, for instance, his group has helped fund Jewish day schools across the region.

“The time is ripe to invest in the Jewish journalism in the former Soviet Union. The press is not only a source of information but a very important tool for community-building,” he said. I believe in the idealism and the intellectual capacity of Russian Jews to build a first-rate community. I believe they will do that”, he added.

Toby Dershowitz, executive director of the American Jewish Press Association and Naomi Zubkova, a Jewish journalist working for the Memorial Foundation in Moscow, are planning some practical steps to help professionalize the Jewish press in the region.

One of the suggested steps is a regular seminar featuring master-classes organized by the Memorial Foundation and taught by leading U.S. journalists.

Diana Gantseva, the young editor of a community monthly tabloid in Yekaterinburg with a circulation of several hundred, is especially pleased with this idea.

“That is precisely what I need,” she said.

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