On June 3, 1888, a group of American Jews calling themselves the Society of Knowledge Seekers gathered in Philadelphia to found what would become the Jewish Publication Society of America, a publisher of high-quality books that, despite ups-and-downs, continues its work until today.
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This was not the first time that a “Jewish Publication Society” had been organized in the United States. In fact, two earlier attempts had been made – one in 1845, a second in 1873 – both of which had each ceased operation within several years.
The organizer of the Society of Knowledge Seekers was the young Philadelphia rabbi Joseph Krauskopf, the Prussian-born head of the Reform synagogue Keneseth Israel. Krauskopf identified the creation of a dedicated publication organization as the “need of the hour” of the burgeoning American Jewish community. As historian Jonathan Sarna recalled, in an article on the occasion of the society's centenary, Krauskopf determined that “some modern Judas Maccabee” would be required for the task, but, in Sarna’s words, “it turned out he did fine himself.”
Despite the perhaps-inevitable bickering that accompanied the convening of a group of Jewish intellectuals and community leaders, those assembled that day at the Hebrew Education Society decided fairly quickly on their mission. They were assisted by philanthropist Jacob Schiff, at the time in Berlin, who sent a telegram promising seed money of $5,000 to start the society, to be granted in memory of Michael Heilprin, a recently deceased scholar, writer and community organizer.
Sometime before midnight, the group adjourned, after having agreed on an executive committee of 21 members. As Sarna noted, the group was professionally and geographically diverse (lawyers, rabbis, scholars and businessmen from 13 different Jewish communities). Eight of its members were in their mid-30s or younger, and nine were native-born: “They represented the audience that the Society would aim to attract.”
The nine-member publication committee that was announced a mere three months later included people whose names remain familiar today: Krauskopf, who several years later was to found the National Farm School for Jewish immigrants from Russia; rabbi and Talmudist Marcus Jastrow; educator and philologist Cyrus Adler; Henrietta Szold, a young teacher who would later found the Hadassah women’s organization. The chairman of the committee was attorney Mayer Sulzberger.
The 13-page document of principles adopted by the society stressed a need to be non-denominational in its Jewishness, the importance of representing Jewish culture to society-at-large and in so doing to advance “juster conceptions of duty and fraternity,” and to reach out to Jewish young people.
By the time the JPS was six months old, its bank account held $11,000 (industrialist Meyer Guggenheim had matched Jacob Schiff’s grant) and more than a thousand individuals had become subscribers. Being a member guaranteed one a copy of every book published by the society, which quickly began to emerge at the rate of three to four titles per year. Many young people received membership in the society’s book club as bar and bat mitzvah presents, a program that was discontinued two decades ago.
The first book JPS released was a republication of the British writer Katie Magnus’ “Outlines of Jewish History.” It was followed by a translation from the German of historian Heinrich Graetz’s “History of the Jews,” in six volumes. In the following decades, largely under the leadership of Szold, the society’s “publication secretary,” the JPS also brought out “Legends of the Jews,” by Louis Ginzberg, began publication of an American Jewish Year Book (later taken over by the American Jewish Committee), and, in 1917, brought out the first of its two scholarly Jewish translations from the Hebrew of “The Holy Scriptures.” (The second translation, titled the “JPS Tanakh,” was completed in 1985.)
In the 125 years since its founding, JPS has published more than 700 titles, many of which have become Jewish classics. By 2012, however, the contingencies of modern publishing meant that it could no longer afford to maintain its independence, and it went into partnership with the University of Nebraska Press. Nebraska is now responsible for all of the company’s non-editorial functions, namely for production, marketing and sales. JPS however, maintains ownership of the rights for the company’s valuable backlist. (The director of UNP, Donna Shear, is a former head of production and marketing at JPS.) Together the two companies continue to bring out new titles under the JPS imprint.