PHILADELPHIA (Jewish Exponent) — As Rabbi Barry Schwartz tells it, one of his heroes is the 17th century Rabbi Menasseh Ben Israel, 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 handwritten tomes.
“It’s an example of respecting the old world while ushering in the new,” said Schwartz, 51. “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.
Schwartz, 51, comes in at a time when publishing faces an uphill climb with rising costs, dwindling readership and competitive new technologies.
He left his post as senior rabbi at Congregation M’kor Shalom, a Reform synagogue in Cherry Hill, N.J., to succeed Ellen Frankel, who is retiring after 18 years at the helm.
While Frankel served as CEO and editor-in-chief, Schwartz will serve primarily as the public face of JPS and its fundraiser-in-chief.
Interim director Carol Hupping said it was vital to find a candidate with longstanding connections to the Jewish community. Hupping, who will return to her role as chief operating officer and publishing director, said that JPS would like to hire another editor-in-chief, but is holding off 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, said 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 is going to be driving anywhere unless there’s a little spare change.
As such, Schwartz 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 said that JPS needs to stay focused on what has long been its core — publishing Jewish references and classic Jewish texts like the Bible.
The organization should not attempt to compete with academic or denominational publishing houses, such as the Union for Reform Judaism, he said, but “we do want to collaborate with those that serve the synagogue world as indispensable sources of the classics and key reference.”
Hupping said that about half to two-thirds of JPS funds come from book sales, including print on-demand and a growing list of e-books. She acknowledged that some digital outreach has not yet made 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,” Hupping said.
In addition to 25 years on the pulpit, including 11 at M’kor Shalom, Schwartz has written four books. His most recent effort, “Judaism’s Great Debates,” will be published next year.
Both Hupping and Schwartz were candid that the future is uncertain. Schwartz, however, was quick to point out that history is on the side of the publication society.
“What are the monuments of Judaism that endure?” Schwartz posited. “Are they buildings? No, they’re books.”