Following in j. editor Marc S. Klein’s footsteps is no small order, but veteran journalist Sue Fishkoff is up for the challenge.
After an almost two-month search and selection process, j.’s board of directors announced July 11 that Fishkoff — an author, public speaker and longtime national correspondent for the Jewish Telegraphic Agency — will take the reins as j.’s editor effective Sept. 1.
Klein, who currently serves as editor and publisher, will stay on for another month to ease the transition before officially retiring. Nora Contini, j’s longtime associate publisher, will take over as publisher.
Fishkoff grew up in the small town of Metuchen, N.J., with a Jewish father and a non-Jewish mother. “We were raised as Americans,” says Fishkoff, a petite woman of 53 with striking red hair. “Our only religious heritage was going to my grandparents’ for the Passover seder every year, and that made a huge impression on me. I always felt Jewish.”
At 16, the budding Zionist went to Israel for a kibbutz ulpan program. A few years later, not long after beginning her undergraduate studies at Cornell University, she took a semester off and did another ulpan. At 19, she underwent an Orthodox conversion — this was before the Reform movement recognized patrilineal descent, she notes, and her grandparents’ rabbi just happened to be Orthodox.
After getting her bachelor’s degree in history, she returned to Israel to live on a kibbutz for two years. “I had a very strong Jewish and Israeli identity from a young age,” she said, adding that she’s an Israeli citizen, and still returns every year.
Fishkoff earned a master’s in Soviet history from Columbia University, then moved to California to work as a reporter and editor at the Monterey County Weekly. In 1991, she was working late in the office the night the first Gulf War broke out.
“We had the TV turned on and I was watching the Scud missiles going over Tel Aviv, and I said ‘I need to go back,’ ” she recalled. She moved to Israel a few months later, and wrote for the Jerusalem Post from 1991 to 1997.
Fishkoff returned to the alternative weekly in Monterey in 1997 until joining JTA in 2004, where she has covered Jewish culture and identity ever since.
She has written two critically acclaimed books: “The Rebbe’s Army: Inside the World of Chabad-Lubavitch,” published in 2003, and “Kosher Nation: Why More and More of America’s Food Answers to a Higher Authority,” published in 2010.
“The Rebbe’s Army” details how the Chabad movement sends its emissaries worldwide to teach Judaism, and saw Fishkoff spending hours with the movement’s tireless young organizers on their quest to make other Jews more observant.
As for “Kosher Nation,” Fishkoff says her interest in Jewish food movements was a natural offshoot of her reporting.
“I’ve been dancing around the question of kashrut for 20 years now,” she said. “When people ask me what it is, I don’t say ‘It’s a system that says what you can and can’t eat.’ I’ve always looked at it as the original system of mindful eating: It posits the human being at the center of the whole network of life and death, and it acknowledges that we don’t own other creatures or the earth … It is a moral and spiritual discipline, as is organics and vegetarianism. They all come from the same mindset.”
Fishkoff’s research on Jewish dietary laws led her to conclude that food is a major focal point for the next generation of Jewish activists.
“At the JTA, I was writing about Jewish identity, how people express their Judaism, and increasingly I was coming across people who were making food choices because of their Jewish values,” she said. “Whether it be the Chabad couple I met in the Ukraine who drove out into the country to milk a cow themselves so that their kids can have fresh milk, or the people from the new indie minyans who are creating a two-table kashrut system so that everybody can contribute to the food and can feel comfortable eating it … the cause of this generation is food justice, and that’s a very deep-rooted Jewish value.”
The food movement is just one of many things that makes Fishkoff excited to be covering the Bay Area’s Jewish community. When she first began working at JTA, she said she was encouraged to move to Los Angeles, based on the notion that it was the center of Jewish news.
She declined to do so. “The Bay Area is where the Jewish future is,” she recalled saying. “The Bay Area and New York, for me, are the two centers of Jewish innovation and cultural creativity. It’s where all the foment is happening — the academic work, the ritual work, the arts. So many trends started in the Bay Area — from Jewish Renewal, to healing services, to interfaith outreach. I can’t think of a more exciting place outside of Israel to be writing about the Jewish community.”
As for the task of filling Klein’s shoes at j., Fishkoff called it “daunting.”
“He’s been such a mentor to me, and he better continue to be one!” she said with a laugh, adding that she plans only to build on what he’s accomplished, not overhaul or tear down anything.
The admiration is mutual. “I’ve been a fan of Sue’s for years,” said Klein. “I’m confident that j. will become even better under her direction.”
Fishkoff is looking forward to help shape the communal discussion in what she sees as one of the most stimulating places in the world to be a Jew.
“I’m endlessly interested in the Jewish community and excited by the possibility of being part of that glue that holds the disparate communities together,” she said.
“I always say the ‘Jewish community’ doesn’t have a capital J and a capital C. There are many Jewish communities, and I think they all need a voice. I’m just looking forward to being part of that voice.”