Jodi Rudoren’s Forward is a daily must-read for American Jews looking for a credible, smart, and comprehensive Jewish perspective on the news. We’re excited to welcome Jodi to Stanford for our Jewish Media in America event in a few weeks and, like Arielle, she agreed to be interviewed ahead of the talk.
Berman Archive: In a few sentences, can you summarize the history of the Forward?
Jodi Rudoren: The Forward was founded in 1897 as a Yiddish Socialist daily broadsheet, and by the 1920s had more readers than The New York Times. It taught generations of Eastern European Jews how to be American, with guides on how to vote and advice columns on whether to let your kid play baseball alongside reporting from around the world, fiction and essays by Nobel prizewinners Isaac Bashevis Singer and Elie Wiesel, investigations and recipe contests. The landmark Forward Building on the Lower East Side was a community hub where thousands gathered to watch election results and a hive of labor political organizing; politicians in New York and across the country read the Forward to take the pulse of American Jews, an emerging electoral force. We had bureaus and editions in every major Jewish community in the U.S. and Europe, and a radio station, WEVD — named for Eugene V. Debs — that began in English and eventually broadcast in multiple languages.
Alas, the Forward has lost money every year since 1946 — and only managed to stay afloat by selling off assets including the landmarked building and the radio station. It only began publishing in English in 1990, and went fully digital in 2019. We now reach about 1.3 million people a month across platforms.
Berman Archive: How do you see your work carrying on some of the themes that run through that history?
Jodi Rudoren: If we originally taught immigrants how to be American, we now are helping Americans figure out what it means to them to be Jewish in this era of intersectionality, fluid identities, antisemitism, disinformation and polarization. We still publish in Yiddish — essays and feature stories as well as cooking and music videos, a Yiddish crossword and Wordle puzzle. And we continue our proud tradition of investigative journalism that holds power to account. Now a reader-supported nonprofit, we are no longer partisan, our only ideology is that of inquiry, and we are one of the few remaining publications that is truly independent and provides a platform for civil discourse on what divides us, reflecting our communities’ diversity of background and perspective. We remain irreverent, welcoming, savvy and connected to our audience.
Jewish journalism is a low-barrier-to-entry way for every type and stripe of Jew to take a step closer to their Jewishness however they define it.
Berman Archive: What is the role of the Jewish press in Jewish life in America?
Jodi Rudoren: The latest Pew study showed that there are large and growing numbers of Americans who are excited and proud to be Jewish — and that most of them are disappointed or disillusioned (or worse) by mainstream Jewish institutions, including synagogues and establishment groups like AIPAC, ADL and the rest of the alphabet soup. Jewish journalism is a low-barrier-to-entry way for every type and stripe of Jew to take a step closer to their Jewishness however they define it.
We provide a Jewish lens on the news and a guide through the conversations convulsing our communities. We provide probing coverage of arts and culture, and robust debate on the issues of the day. We connect people to each other, and especially in smaller Jewish communities, can be the most reliable and vibrant Jewish thing available. We also hold our leaders accountable — whether that be reporting on mainstream politicians invoking antisemitic tropes, or hypocrisy by Jewish organizational heads.
And then there are situations like the lies told by Rep. George Santos. The New York Times broke open that story, documenting that Santos had lied about virtually everything on his resume. But the Forward followed up by proving that he had also lied about having grandparents who fled the Holocaust, and it was that lie more than any other that put this politician beyond the pale. The reporter who broke that story, Andrew Silverstein, said he thought at one point the effort was futile — surely The Times would have found this lie, too, if it was there. Not so — they were not looking for this in the focused way that a Jewish publication can and must and does. That’s why we still need community news organizations.
Berman Archive: What are the most important coverage areas on the American Jewish scene for you? What is under covered? Are there subjects you avoid covering?
Jodi Rudoren: Antisemitism, in all its facets, is our No. 1 topic. That includes daily coverage of hate speech, attacks, tropes and more, and rigorous analysis of data and fear-mongering. It includes investigations and opinion pieces.
Culture coverage is also essential, because it is a key point of connection and insight for millions, and most other publications do such a superficial job.
Israel is super important right now, and it is sometimes difficult to find our lane, given the proliferation of Israeli outlets publishing in English. We don’t avoid it, by any means, but we probably do less than we should.
I can’t think of any SUBJECT we avoid covering, but we do try to only do journalism with a fundamental Jewish angle, versus stories where a Jew happens to be caught up in the news, since other, better-resourced newsrooms will have those stories. We understand we are a second-read now, as opposed to in our heyday, and that audiences come to us for the specific Jewish stories or Jewish takes on non-Jewish stories.
Berman Archive: How has the American Jewish community changed in the past decade?
Jodi Rudoren: On the one hand, the Orthodox segment is growing, and growing more conservative religiously and politically. On the other, the rest of the community is becoming more diverse, with more families of mixed race and including non-Jewish partners, part of a broader generational change. We are also becoming less connected to Israel.
Berman Archive: What has been your most impactful Jewish archive find in any archive?
Jodi Rudoren: Oh, certainly the collection of some 15,000 documents at Yad Vashem related to the Forward’s “Seeking Relatives” column, which helped save thousands of lives, reunite families and changed the course of American Jewish history. Historians of the Holocaust had never seen these underlying letters from desperate Jews in all corners of the world, and the role the Forward played had never been fully told. Finding the archive led to this incredible long form narrative and, we hope, will soon allow us to create a searchable database of the column and the underlying letters through a partnership with Ancestry.com.
Berman Archive: When you look back through your archives, can you think of 1 or 2 really important stories published (before your time)?
Jodi Rudoren: So many, including relatively recent investigations like the expose of Sebastian Gorka’s ties to neo-Nazis, and stories about abuse of immigrants at kosher poultry plants in Iowa. But I think the most important thing in our archive is A Bintel Brief, the advice column that began in 1906 — half a century before Dear Abby and Ann Landers — and we have revived under my editorship. These columns are the best window into the American Jewish world that was at any moment in time.