Need a hot Jewish journalism tip Its in my binder

Tiny drops of sweat trickled down my face and dotted my upper lip as I attempted to stuff one more pair of jeans, an unworn rain jacket and a sweatshirt into my bulging carry-on suitcase for the flight back home.

It was only 7 a.m., but my dorm room at Brandeis University was already steaming. Sunlight filtered through the covered windows, heating the small space that I had called home for six days, starting July 12.

But now it was the 17th, the final session of the Gralla Fellows Program, and I somehow managed to be leaving Boston with more than I came with.

Funny how that happens almost every time I travel.

It took nearly all of my strength to zip my bulging bag. Feeling triumphant, I quickly scanned the room to see if I had possibly left out any of my belongings. And there, sitting on the whitewashed desk, was my green and yellow binder.

And that was something I could not leave behind.

See, the binder had become the quintessential resource for me to jot down story ideas, compelling quotes and notes from a wide array of experts, each one looking to inspire, educate or simply shmooze with us, the 14 Gralla fellows.

Now in its 12th year, the Gralla Fellows Program brings together journalists, in the early or middle stages of their careers, for a weeklong seminar focusing on Judaism, American Jewish life and trends in religion reporting.

Jonathan Sarna, a Brandeis professor and one of the nation’s leading authorities on American Jewish history, and his colleague Ellen Smith, who teaches in Brandeis’ Department of Near Eastern and Judaic Studies, direct the fellowship. Former trade publications publisher Milton Gralla and his wife, Shirley, provide the funding.

Seated behind long tables adorned with pristine white tablecloths, the 14 Gralla fellows, or “Gralloids” as we later came to be known, stared somewhat blankly at each other on that first day. We were a motley bunch of journalists and recent j-school grads, with two college students thrown into the mix.

Taking into account our varied backgrounds, experiences and locations, it wasn’t surprising that many of our conversations stemmed from personal anecdotes and broadened into advice from which we all could learn.

Yet, there was one aspect of the program that carried with it a universal understanding — the lagging economy’s impact on Jewish journalism.

I didn’t have to look beyond the walls of our conference center to see the effects of dipping advertising sales, fewer subscribers and the love/hate relationship we journalists have with the Internet. Two of the Gralla participants had been laid off in the weeks leading up to the fellowship, bringing with them additional baggage, albeit emotional.

But we refused to dwell on that. Instead, we listened as speaker after speaker provided insight into a variety of topics, including American Jews and Islam, the impact of Birthright Israel on the Jews, and changes in the journalism industry, better known as “Why you should be on Facebook and Twitter.”

I penned pages and pages of notes in my green and yellow binder. It went everywhere with me. On a five-hour walking tour of historic Jewish sites in Boston. To Mayyim Hayyim, a contemporary mikvah made accessible to all Jews and those becoming Jewish. To a Modern Orthodox shul and expansive Reform congregation.

By the end of the week, grabbing that binder was as routine as grabbing my cell phone, wallet and keys.

One extra duffle slung over my shoulder and a weekend of recuperation later, I returned to my San Francisco office on July 20 feeling energized and ready to write. My j. colleagues and fellow Gralla alumni, Stacey Palevsky and Dan Pine, were eager to hear my thoughts on the program, and also to flip through the binder.

We reminisced about our Gralla experiences. We compared itineraries, guest-speaker appearances and even our handwritten notes — mine of course bound by three silver rings and covered by two sturdy plastic covers.

Everything I learned can be found in there, and I am truly honored to have been a Gralla fellow. No, make that a “Gralloid.”

Amanda Pazornik can be reached at [email protected]