Eighteen-hundred-and-eighty-seven. It wasn’t an especially exciting year in history — no world wars were started, no nation-states were born — but a number of things we now take for granted began in that year.
Construction started on the Eiffel Tower. Detective Sherlock Holmes made his debut. The first Groundhog Day was observed in Punxsutawney, Pa.
And along with Marc Chagall, Chico Marx, Jim Thorpe, Georgia O’Keeffe and Arthur Rubinstein came another auspicious birth: the first edition of The Jewish Exponent.
It was not the first Jewish newspaper, by any means, nor even the first in Philadelphia. The seeds for a local Jewish press were planted in 1843, when Sephardic Rabbi Isaac Leeser founded an English-language publication called The Occident and American Jewish Advocate, “a monthly periodical devoted to the diffusion of knowledge on Jewish literature and religion.”
The Occident was published until 1868, the year of Leeser’s death. Philadelphia was also home to the first German-language newspaper geared toward American Jews, several Yiddish-language weeklies and the short-lived Jewish Record.
But The Jewish Exponent was the city’s first established English-language Jewish news-weekly — just the second such paper in the U.S. (The first was The American Israelite, founded in Cincinnati in 1854.) Philadelphia’s Exponent was formed by a group of 43 civic-minded, well-heeled Jewish stockholders, whose family names — Teller, Fleisher, Wolf, Suzlberger, Gans, Dropsie and Muhr — would become prominent in local circles and beyond.
The Exponent’s debut issue, in April 1887, ran 14 pages, and included sermon recaps, synagogue updates, society tidbits and foreign news. It was an immediate success, and in the latter years of the 19th century, it enjoyed increased readership and advertisers, so that it was twice its original size at the turn of the century.
Extra pages meant more and diverse content: Along with the standard synagogue news and gala coverage, the paper added in opinion columns and obituaries; Baltimore news; debates about Zionism; and extensive coverage of major world events — everything from the formation of labor unions to World War II.
In 1944, after the paper had grown into a stalwart presence in the Jewish community, Albert M. Greenfield bought the Exponent; shortly thereafter, it was acquired by Allied Jewish Appeal and Federation — just one of many Jewish publications that would ultimately be connected to a regional Jewish Federation.
In 1962, on the occasion of the Exponent’s 75th anniversary, The Philadelphia Inquirer touted the Jewish Federation-published paper as “the largest Anglo-Jewish weekly in the United States.” It averaged about 40 pages per issue then; in 1987, when it celebrated 100 years, the page count was around 105.
In the ensuing years, the paper’s size and readership has shifted with the changing times. As with all other print publications, the paper has been faced with finding a way forward in a new media landscape in which the vast majority of Americans read their news on a smartphone rather than in a newspaper. The decline of the religious press in the U.S. has also proved troubling, as Americans move away from the automatic affiliation with religious institutions that defined prior generations.
Some things, however, never change.
Today the paper’s ownership and journalists face many of the same questions they confronted when the paper was first minted in 1887 with the motto “A weekly journal devoted to the interests of the Jewish people.” Namely: How does a Jewish newspaper define the Jewish community? What parts of the community should be covered? What is the animating purpose behind a Jewish newspaper?
A product primarily of an “uptown” German Jewish population in its early years, the Exponent struggled mightily to represent the broad swathe of people that comprised Philadelphia’s Jewish community.
As Robert Leiter wrote for the Exponent on the occasion of the newspaper’s 100th anniversary: “When [the paper] considered its ‘downtown’ (substitute Eastern European) brethren, it did so in a paternalistic, if not downright patronizing, manner.” In one case, the paper ran an article about an “uptown” charity ball next to a piece about “downtown” Jews living in filthy conditions.
In addition, editors and contributors argued over the question of airing the community’s dirty laundry after an Exponent report on a Jewish prisoner who’d been paroled. Founding stockholder Moses Dropsie wrote in, Leiter recalled, and “demanded that no other news relating to incarcerated Jews ever appear. … Dropsie’s was the first appeal for a rose-colored view of Jewish life.”
Now, 130 years later, these concerns are still subject to interrogation, in part through collaborative initiatives of the American Jewish Press Association (AJPA) and the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem.
In June 2013, the Institute’s iEngage Project released “Reporting Jewish: Do Journalists Have the Tools to Succeed?” In the study, the institute attempted to address issues of representation by considering the role of the Jewish journalist.
Alan D. Abbey wrote in the report’s introduction: “What is a ‘Jewish’ journalist? What makes a Jewish journalist different — if different she is — from a ‘regular’ journalist? Do Jewish values and community affect media journalists in ways unique to them and the work they do? … Is Jewish journalism any less important or valuable than mainstream journalism? In the world’s changing media environment, what is the place and what is the future of Jewish journalism?”
Similar questions are echoed in the joint AJPA/Shalom Institute project on Jewish ethics, which ponders the obligations of the Jewish press, particularly in light of two seemingly opposing commandments found in Leviticus 19:16: “You shall not be a gossipmonger among your people; you shall not stand aside while your fellow’s blood is shed; I am the Lord.”
In “Crafting Codes of Ethics for Jewish Journalism,” Abbey and co-author Marshall Weiss wrote, “We must often navigate the balance between privacy and avoidance of lashon hora and the need to provide for social justice, to repair a broken world.”
This tension — as seen as early as 1887 — can bedevil publishers of Jewish newspapers. As Abbey and Weiss wrote, “This is not easy. And it should not be. We love our communities. The health and wellness of our communities is always at stake and oftentimes, in our hands. … If we check Jewish values at the door of a Jewish media outlet, why bother putting out what we claim is Jewish journalism?”
Weiss, editor and publisher of The Dayton Jewish Observer, past-president of the AJPA and vice president of the Jewish Scholastic Press Association, recently reflected on the role of Jewish publications in 2017.
“Just as is the case in mainstream media, where the fight is against fake news and trying to provide people with vetted-out factual information and analysis, the same is certainly true in Jewish media,” he said on the phone from his Ohio office. “Out in social media land, there are bogus stories or stories from sites with axes to grind, and it’s important to have well-educated, seasoned, experienced journalists who are vetting things out and looking at all of the facts and giving perspective and careful analysis.”
As in general journalism, Weiss believes, Jewish media still serves the function of holding up a mirror to society and showing readers who we are.
“We’re here to provide a forum for public discourse on how people think the community should be better, what’s not right in the community, in a forum that’s civil and troll-free,” Weiss added. “What’s most important of all is the strength of coverage of the local community. You’re not going to get that anywhere else.”
Weiss noted that longtime papers like the Exponent serve as the memory-keeper, reminding readers of what came before.
“Some things repeat themselves and other things take a different rift,” he said. “That’s very important: reinterpreting history for new generations and explaining it to them so that they don’t forget what that community is about.”
As for that tension between “gossip” and truth-telling, Weiss said, “It’s a balancing act. There must be a reason to publish something that’s negative, and oftentimes there is — but there needs to be a good reason.
“It’s a challenge — that just fulcrum between preserving privacy and the importance of letting people know something for the community good. … But if we’re not writing about what’s really going on in the community so that people can make things better, then in my opinion, that’s a disservice.”
Throughout its 130 years, the Exponent has endeavored to serve Jewish people in Greater Philadelphia by acting as the community’s mirror. The newspaper’s pages have chronicled the life and death of Jewish neighborhoods and faith communities, and marked the milestones of those who defined them.
Editors and writers have considered every controversy, large and small, on the Exponent’s pages, and have heard — and continue to hear — from readers when they disagree. There has been jubilation and heartbreak in just about every issue — a reflection of the nature of life itself.
“The Jewish Federation is proud to publish this important paper as it gives voice to so many in the Philadelphia region,” said Naomi Adler, Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia CEO. “I hear from many, many people each and every week about the great stories told in the paper and online. The Jewish Federation leads our community through giving, inclusion and tradition, and the Exponent gives us opportunity to reach not only the donors who make this all possible but a number of our recipients of the services provided.”
Today, in 2017, the Eiffel Tower is a tourist attraction, Sherlock Holmes has multiple TV shows and Punxsutawney Phil is a national treasure. The Exponent, though on a smaller scale, is equally established — and no matter the shifting tides of media and technology, it’s a voice that’s here to stay.
Contact: [email protected]; 215-832-0747
Click here for more on the Jewish Exponent’s 130th anniversary.