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Why JUF? Part III

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The rewards of reporting and writing for the Jewish community 
12/24/2009

Next year, I will celebrate my tenth anniversary at JUF News—the monthly magazine produced by JUF—my first and only job after college. Who says people of my generation can’t commit?! My career at the magazine started in the summer of 2000, mere weeks after tossing my graduation cap in the air and embarking on life on my own. At that time, the world was beginning to turn topsy-turvy, just before the latest intifada in Israel erupted.

A year later came 9/11, a frightening turning point for us as a nation, as a community, and as individuals. My recently graduated (at the time) friends and I talked about this as our JFK moment; we will never forget where we were when the towers were hit or with whom we sat glued to our televisions for the rest of the day. September 11th burst our balloon of invincibility and complacency as young people about to take on the world.

My tenure at JUF News has coincided with all of this upheaval in the world. And I, along with my colleagues, have chronicled this grim reality, this new era of uncertainty in which we find ourselves living in page after page of JUF News for the last decade. As we hear and report on bad things continuously happening to good people in the world, my co-workers and I feel demoralized at times. I often see the world that we write about in our magazine through a bleak lens, from covering constant terror, mayhem, and anti-Semitism around the globe and here at home.

But when I think back over my 10 years as a journalist in the Jewish community, stories of death and defeat don’t come readily to mind nearly as much as do compelling stories about the lives of Jewish people, Jews thriving and triumphing in all walks of life. What I recall most are my many conversations with these people. It’s a privilege to eavesdrop on these lives with a notebook and digital recorder. Each person’s story is different from the next, but all are tied through the tenacious thread of the Jewish narrative.

I’ve had the opportunity to meet incredible people, some of them famous. While sitting with Elie Wiesel—famed Holocaust survivor, writer, and sage—in his midtown Manhattan office, I asked the scholar what it means to be Jewish in America. “Here, Jews can speak as Jews,” he marveled. “In America, you can be seen wearing a kippah in the street. Jews help others but they always help as Jews.”

Turn 180 degrees to Jon Stewart, a wise guy in his own right. My conversation with Stewart stands out to me as the most jokes made at my expense per minute by an interviewee. But the comedian also worked in a few Jewish-themed jokes during our limited time together. “The word Hamentashen—funny word,” he mused, when I introduced myself to Stewart as a representative from a Jewish magazine. “As a comedy writer, I use it frequently. When in doubt—Hamentashen.”

Other memorable conversations have included people with less name recognition, but who have been equally engaging. Alfred Blum, a nonagenarian watchmaker with the spirit of an 18-year-old, fled with his wife, Reni, to Chicago from Germany in the late 1930s, just in time to escape Hitler.

During my interview with the two of them, I admired Reni’s unusual watch. It has a red leather band and a painter’s palette for the face. Reni took off the watch and handed it to me. “You take it. I have another one.” I refused, but they insisted. “When someone offers you a gift,” said Alfred, translating warmly from Yiddish to English, “you take it.” Reni’s watch hangs on my office bulletin board to this day, more than nine years since our interview.

What I love most about working in Jewish journalism is that the stories I cover affect a community I care so much about because I am a part of it.

A ‘wow’ moment for me came after a few months on the job. I reported on a story for a Jewish genetic disorders supplement that we run periodically in JUF News. For the piece, I visited the homes of two heroic families, each with a child suffering from a debilitating genetic disease. Barrie, the mother of Michelle, who is afflicted with a rare illness called Familial Dysautonomia informed me that when Michelle was a baby, pre-diagnosis, Barrie had read two articles, one of which appeared in a past JUF News genetic disorders supplement describing symptoms that matched her daughter’s.

It was only then, after Barrie read these articles, that she was able to identify Michelle’s illness. “I remember reading them, sitting there frozen, thinking this is my child, this is my child,” Barrie told me.

This was a light-bulb moment for her—and for me too. At that moment, I realized my work—and the work of everyone on staff at JUF News, at the Jewish Federation, and in Jewish communal service in general—was helping people, Jews and non-Jews, in large and small ways to live their lives better.

Wanna give back?  Click here to donate to JUF.

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