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Pulpit to Publishing: A New Leader for JPS

July 8, 2010 By:
Aaron Passman, JE Feature
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Rabbi Barry Schwartz
As Rabbi Barry Schwartz tells it, one of his heroes is Rabbi Menasseh Ben Israel, a 17th-century figure who set up Amsterdam's first Hebrew printing press.

Ben Israel knew that printed books were the way of the future, rather than those copied by hand, said Schwartz, but he also understood that many people at the time still held a deep affinity for hand-written tomes.

"It's an example of respecting the old world while ushering in the new," explained the 51-year-old. "I believe we're poised at a similar point now."

That's the kind of talk you'd expect from someone named as the new CEO of the 122-year-old Jewish Publication Society.

The rabbi comes at a time when publishing faces an uphill climb, with costs rising, readers dwindling and competitive new technologies all the rage.

Schwartz, who has left his post as senior rabbi at Congregation M'kor Shalom, a Reform synagogue in Cherry Hill, N.J., will succeed the entity's longtime leader Ellen Frankel, who retired after 18 years at the helm.

While Frankel served as CEO and editor-in-chief, Schwartz will serve primarily as JPS' public face and fundraiser-in-chief.

Interim director Carol Hupping said that it was vital to find a candidate with longstanding connections to the Jewish community. Hupping, who will return to her role as COO and publishing director, said that JPS would like to hire another editor-in-chief, but is holding off right now for financial reasons.

"We knew we really needed somebody who could be an ambassador for JPS; a networker, somebody who could be a collaborator at heart," she said.

Schwartz, who started this week, affirmed that "we are going to have to reinvent ourselves."

He cited imagination and collaboration as two engines necessary to drive the group forward, but also noted that no one's going to be driving anywhere unless there's a little spare change.

As such, he plans to reach out to the congregational world, which uses JPS Torah translations and commentaries, as well as stocks books in their libraries. He also hopes to form partnerships with other publishers, such as Jewish Lights and NextBook.

Schwartz asserted that JPS needs to stay focused on what has long been its core -- publishing Jewish references and classic Jewish texts like the Hebrew Bible.

The organization should not attempt to compete with academic or denominational publishing houses, such as the Union for Reform Judaism, said its new leader, but "we do want to collaborate with those that serve the synagogue world as indispensable sources of the classics and key reference."

About half to two-thirds of JPS funds come from book sales, including print on-demand and a growing list of e-books, said Hupping. She acknowledged that some digital outreach has not yet made any money.

She called JPS a nonprofit community organization that wants to make its content "available in any legitimate way possible," whether via the Web, iPods, e-readers or other media. But "unlike a traditional commercial publisher, we can't always put a price tag on everything."

In addition to 25 years on the pulpit (11 at M'kor Shalom), the rabbi has written four books, the most recent of which, Judaism's Great Debates, will be published next year.

Both Hupping and Schwartz were candid that the future is uncertain; however, Schwartz was quick to point out that they've got history on their side.

"What are the monuments of Judaism that endure?" Schwartz posited. "Are they buildings? No, they're books."

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