(WOMENSENEWS)–In June, Jane Eisner became the first female editor of the largest national Jewish newspaper.
But like many trailblazers, she discourages any automatic assumptions about what that means for women’s rights at the New York-based Forward, a paper with fabled beginnings in the city’s immigrant Yiddish-speaking community that now publishes weekly in English and Yiddish separately.
"I don’t want to make it feel like just that I’m a woman I’m running stories about women," Eisner said in an interview at the Forward’s Manhattan office. "If they’re newsworthy, we should run them."
On the other hand, she said one of her strong editorial interests–exploring how Jews are both abandoning and rediscovering religion in the United States–might veer into special women’s turf.
"There’s the struggle of continuity: how you raise your children with values in a very materialistic world and really teach them true tolerance," she said. "I think that those are things that face all the Jews, but since women tend to still, I think, feel responsible for the child’s moral and religious development, then that might be something of even more importance to women."
The Forward’s main office in New York has a 15-person staff and maintains a full-time correspondent in Washington, Los Angeles and Haifa, Israel.
Nancy Ratzan, president of the Washington-based National Council of Jewish Women, a 115-year-old volunteer organization inspired by Jewish values that works on social change, said the Forward has always been receptive to the causes of her organization, be it Jewish women’s empowerment, family health care, pro-choice activism or separation of religion and state.
"The Forward is the national vehicle for news and debate on national and international issues to the Jewish community," said Ratzan. "It has earned a great reputation as a crusader and as a reporter of progressive issues of interest to the full Jewish community. We are extremely excited that Jane is taking over the helm of editor."
A String of Firsts
Eisner has been the "first woman" at many points of her career.
In 1976 during the early co-ed years at Connecticut’s Wesleyan University, Eisner became the first female editor of the college newspaper.
At the Philadelphia Inquirer, where she worked from 1980 through 2005, she was the first female city hall bureau chief. She was the daily’s first mother to work as a foreign correspondent when in 1985, together with her family, she moved to London. She later became the paper’s first female editorial page editor in 1994, serving in that role until 1999.
While climbing the ladder at the Philadelphia Inquirer for 25 years, Eisner also built a family, working through three pregnancies.
"When I went back to work after my third child, and I got a brand new job at the Inquirer, I had to prove I could be there forever, early in the morning, late at night, damn it," she said. "I was going to work through all my pregnancies; I was going to do all this."
Eisner said her biggest struggle has been trying to balance home and work.
"There were very few role models for me, and I struggled so many years trying to figure out how do I become a serious journalist and raise a family," she said. "And there were times when I felt really burdened, and there were times when frankly I felt angry because I felt like I was facing issues that my male colleagues didn’t face."
She hopes her choices will serve as an example to her three daughters, who have learned about the underbelly of hard work and the possibility of female leadership but also the importance of a family environment.
"My youngest daughter says now . . . that she would see these commercials of women serving dinner to their family and she would say to herself, ‘What’s that all about?’ because sometimes I was never home for dinner," Eisner said. "So that makes me feel badly, but I also hope this has shown them that they can do whatever they want."
Columns Sprang From Life Experience
During her last five years at the Philadelphia Inquirer, Eisner became a columnist and taught at the University of Pennsylvania, which gave her more time to spend with her mother, who at the time was suffering from Alzheimer’s.
She ended up writing one column about the burden of caregivers faced with the disease’s complexities. It attracted more national attention than any other story she’d written.
In her columns Eisner has probed the evolution of marriage in the United States and its implications for children, education, teacher quality and the outburst of community services throughout the country.
Eisner left the Philadelphia Inquirer in 2005 after being offered a buy-out during a wave of layoffs.
She entered the nonprofit sector, taking the position of vice-president for national programs and initiatives at the National Constitution Center, based in Philadelphia.
After two years in that job, she was approached by the publisher of the Forward who encouraged her to apply for the editor’s position.
In addition to her experience in daily journalism and managing a national organization, Eisner thinks she also brings a strong support for the editorial principles of the Forward and an eagerness to promote its brand of journalism.
"I feel very strongly about the underlining values of social justice and equality that are really a part of the history here from the very beginning, and I admire that tremendously," she said. "I think that there was a real activist role that the Forward played in the community in its heyday and I think that could be again."
Paper With Socialist Roots
The Forward started in 1897 as a Yiddish-language paper for Jewish immigrants. As a Socialist daily supporting trade unionism, social justice, fair income and equality, the paper participated in the early 1900s in the activities of the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union, the first U.S. union with a predominantly female membership.
After the Holocaust, the Forward played a key role in connecting survivors to the American Jewish community. The outlet remained Yiddish until 1983, when it added an English supplement. Today, the Yiddish version has a smaller, predominantly older audience.
In 1990, the English version came under the editorial leadership of Seth Lipsky, a longtime Wall Street Journal editorial board member, who shifted its political stance more toward the right.
"At that point, it was more conservative than its historical roots," said Ari Goldman, a journalism professor at Columbia University who has contributed to the Forward on a few occasions and is a former board member of the rival New York Jewish Week. "But it also tracked the changes in the Jewish community, which had become more established and more protective of its turf than in the early days."
Goldman said J.J. Goldberg–Eisner’s immediate predecessor, who took over in 2000–steered the paper to its current left-of-center position.
In a sign of the current times, a recent front-page story on its Web site featured civil rights advocates in Israel protesting the barring of Palestinians from a beach at the Dead Sea. The story’s photograph showed a group of Hebron school girls in headscarves on the West Bank shores.
Besa Luci, a native of Kosovo, is a recent graduate of the University of Missouri’s Graduate School of Journalism.
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