Rachel Fishman Feddersen remembers that her late grandmother, Bess Fishman, would simply chuckle when she was overwhelmed. So Fishman, a longtime Beth Tfiloh Congregation member and archivist, would have cracked up laughing at the sight of her granddaughter addressing a jam-packed crowd in the synagogue’s Mintzes Theatre on Wednesday, Feddersen said.
Feddersen, CEO and publisher of The Forward, admitted the scene inside the confines of the self-described largest modern Orthodox synagogue in the country was a surreal experience. Not once had the 46-year-old Baltimore native thought she’d be standing on the same stage where Rabbi Mitchell Wohlberg, comedian Howie Mandel and actress and singer Lainie Kazan had entertained her years earlier.
“For grandma, her Judaism was one of the things that defined her. Can you imagine what she would think about me working at The Forward? Not just working — the CEO,” Feddersen told the audience, as she raised her voice in excitement. “I think the only thing that would make her prouder than the job I have is — and I truly think this — would be to see me standing here tonight.”
In many ways, Feddersen told the JT beforehand via email, The Forward mirrors the Jewish American experience her grandmother enjoyed. At its best, Feddersen said, The Forward acts as a reassuring gathering place that brings together Jews from both sides of the political aisle.
That was the basis for much of her 45-minute talk, which focused heavily on the importance of Jewish media outlets at a time when anti-Semitism is on the rise.
“Having a Jewish media source that can report honestly and fearlessly, while also celebrating the delights of being Jewish, is important for us,” Feddersen said.
The Forward has told the stories of Jews in the United States for 120 years, having published its first edition in Yiddish on a one-page sheet that cost only one penny. A must-read for Jews who fled persecution in Europe in the early 20th century, in 1925 it had a larger circulation than The New York Times. In recent years, staff members have worked hard to rebrand The Forward for a community now largely rooted in American life.
When Feddersen took the helm in May 2016, The Forward was published weekly but faced a crossroads in its quest to remain relevant in the 24/7 news cycle, she said. She knew a makeover was needed. Readers had shared feedback that they had read much of the content online by the time the print issue had arrived.
So she dove in head first to address those concerns, enlisting the digital media skills she gained working for companies such as hyper-local publisher Patch, Walt Disney Co. and Time Inc. The decision to transition from a weekly newspaper to a glossy magazine was made in the summer of 2016, and the new format rolled out this past July.
“We have moved at a lighting pace,” Feddersen said. “We are so fortunate that we have the tools to carry out our mission.”
With the transition, more resources were shifted to beef up coverage of fringe groups on the far left and far right as well as to drive more investigative reporting. And in the last year, Feddersen said, the shift has paid dividends, citing a 60 percent increase in both donations and Web traffic.
Feddersen pointed to last year’s presidential campaign as a catalyst for The Forward to get back to its roots of covering public acts of anti-Semitic incidents while expanding its Web presence. According to the Anti-Defamation League, anti-Semitic incidents in the U.S. increased by 34 percent from 2015 to 2016 and surged by 86 percent in the first quarter this year.
“We’re putting out content that’s compelling, thought provoking and keeping up with current events,” Feddersen said.
But it can be taxing. Feddersen admitted she and her staff have been the subject of numerous hate incidents.
She said threats have been directed to her and her staff through emails, social media and comment threads. They have included the posting of employees’ home addresses to white supremacists’ message boards and mailing of Hallmark greeting cards “with badly Xeroxed images of hell fire” to The Forward’s office in New York, she said.
At first, Feddersen admitted, it was frightening. She had to put more security measures in place, including the addition of safety drills, multiple safe rooms, deadbolt locks and peepholes.
“I was an English major,” Feddersen said, which drew a few laughs from the crowd. “This was not in the curriculum. [But] this is my job. I have a responsibility for dozens of people who work in our office to make sure that they are safe so they can continue their important work.”
And the importance of that work was not lost on the audience.
When Wohlberg opened up the floor to audience questions, one about what distinguishes The Forward from its competition really sparked a lively discussion.
Feddersen, especially, dove in with an impassioned response that her publication’s coverage of American Jewish life is second to none.
“With the strength of its journalism, strength of its writers, strength of its investigations and breadth of coverage … it offers a lot,” Feddersen said. “In terms of investigations, we’re really the only investigative journalism out there besides [The New York] Times that takes on the really complex investigative issues. But it is a matter of taste.”
Members of the crowd the JT spoke with afterward said they came away from the presentation with a greater appreciation for the service The Forward has to offer.
Lynn Dopkin, 65, of Pikesville said she enjoys the attention to detail and objectivity presented on both sides of important issues.
“The fact that you can read an article and then find another article that says the opposite really allows the reader to decide what they want to think,” Dopkin said. “We need more truth in journalism, which is what [The Forward] has.”
Gail Fishman, 59, of Guilford, who is Feddersen’s cousin, has subscribed to The Forward for about a year. She said she loves the long-form, multimedia stories on the website because they create an immersive experience for her.
“The investigative reporting is very deep and very well presented,” Fishman said. “I have to read it every day. It is hard to find that kind of information anywhere else, especially the way it is presented.”
Overall, Feddersen said, The Forward wants to start off its next 120 years on the right foot, summed up by the end of her speech with a call to action: “If our survival matters to you, subscribe. If you want us to be there for your children and their children, join us.”