First rough draft of history
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First rough draft of history

Local NBC reporter Jen Maxfield talks about her new book

Jen Maxfield is at home on camera.(All photos courtesy Jen Maxfield)
Jen Maxfield is at home on camera.(All photos courtesy Jen Maxfield)

Although there are many ways to be a reporter — you can be a print or radio journalist, or a podcaster; you can cover breaking news or provide context and background later, you can write briefs or go long-form — it’s possible that Jen Maxfield is the iconic kind.

She’s the one standing next to the victim or the victim’s spouse or parent or child, or the next-door neighbor, or the Nobel prize winner who’s just gotten the middle-of-the-night call from Sweden, or the subway rider who was next to the terrorist, or the would-be diner who was put off by the giant rats feasting on pizza.

She’s the reporter who asks the questions, tells the story, leaves the viewer not only informed but very often also moved or angered or alarmed — and then pivots to the next story, the next outrage or joy or sadness or inexplicable act of kindness, because there’s always a next story.

But what happened to the people whose story she told?

Most of the time, Ms. Maxfield said, she’s too busy to think about that. But covid gave her the gift of time to think.

The result is a just-about-to-be-published book, “More After the Break,” in which, as the subtitle tells us, “A reporter returns to ten unforgettable news stories.”

She’ll talk about it at the JCC on the Palisades in Tenafly on July 13. (See below.)

First, there’s Ms. Maxfield’s own story.

Jen Maxfield, who lives in Bergen County (and has requested that we not be more specific) grew up in Tenafly, the oldest of six children — “we’re a big bunch,” she said; the family’s all still close emotionally, and most of them have stayed in the metropolitan area, so they’re close physically as well. She went through the Tenafly public school system, where she was not only a top student but also an athlete, competing in track and field.

“When I was a teenager, I was a lifeguard and taught swimming at the JCC,” she said. That’s the Kaplen JCC on the Palisades.

Jen, center, was a lifeguard at the JCC during her high-school summers.

Ms. Maxfield graduated from high school in 1995. She went to Columbia for her undergraduate degree, and then on to Columbia’s journalism school for her master’s.

She had planned on being a doctor, like her father – “my dad is a pulmonologist, and I looked up to him and always wanted to be just like him,” she said. “I was pre-med for the first two years of college.” She’s also written for the Echo, Tenafly High School’s student paper, and then for Columbia’s Daily Spectator. “I always enjoyed writing but didn’t necessarily see it as a career path,” she said. “But I loved the writing, and I also loved the reporting part of it. I’m an extrovert, so I love talking to people.” Still, her career path seemed laid out clearly before her.

And then “I saw a job posting for an internship at the U.N., working for CNN,” she said. Obviously, she applied for the job and got it. “I worked with Gary Tuckman, who is still a mentor of mine, and a lightbulb went off,” Ms. Maxfield said.

“It was an amazing experience.”

Yes, her parents were fine with her choice, she said; both of them, Roger and Carol Maxfield, “have been very supportive, and they always gave me the space to let me make my own decisions.”

So she changed her major from pre-med to political science, and after she graduated from journalism school she began the career journey of an aspiring television news reporters, going to small markets in upstate New York and then back downstate, where her background helped her make the logical next step. She works for a New York station and covers New Jersey.

She’s reported many thousands of stories, met many many thousands of people, and still loves her job.

Back to her personal life.

So you lived in Tenafly, went to school in Tenafly, and swam at the JCC in Tenafly. So what shul did you belong to then, Ms. Maxfield?

“I didn’t,” Ms. Maxfield answered. “I was Christian then.” In fact, the Maxfields belonged to the Presbyterian Church-Tenafly.

Here, Ms. Maxfield stands outside the journalism school at Columbia, her alma mater.

Back in college, Ms. Maxfield met Scott Ostfeld, who grew up in East Brunswick. “We were in a class together, in Italian Renaissance sculpture, and we wound up sitting next to each other, and the rest is history.”

They dated for years, carried on a long-distance relationship while Ms. Maxfield was upstate, and married in 2003. “We were married by a minister and a rabbi, Nate Benjamin,” Ms. Maxfield said.

From the beginning, Jen and Scott agreed that “we were going to raise our kids Jewish,” she continued. “And because I am very Type A, I decided to take a conversion class, to educate myself. I didn’t take it to convert. I really viewed it as education, because I was going to be the mom of a Jewish child.”

Her son had a bris of conversion, “but I did not convert then.”

They lived in Hoboken, and joined the United Synagogue of Hoboken, “and I took my son to Mommy and Me classes. And I started feeling that although I never had any issues about being a different religion from my husband, it was very different being a different religion from my child.

“When I was pregnant with my second child, I converted.”

That was in January 2008, she said — she worked with Rabbi Matthew Gewirtz of Congregation B’nai Jeshurun in Short Hills — and her daughter was born in February.

Jen Maxfield and Scott Ostfeld now are the parents of three children — Trevor, 15, Vivian, 14, and Evelyn, 11.

“That’s my Jewish journey,” Ms. Maxfield said. “I am very happy, and very grateful that neither my husband nor his family ever put any pressure on me to convert. They always accepted me exactly as I was.

“Part of what makes me so proud and happy to be Jewish is that I came to the decision on my own.

Ms. Maxfield sits with Zaina Matahen, a survivor of the Paramus bus crash, before their interview.

“Now we are a bar and a bat mitzvah into it; they’ve both been at Temple Emanu-El in Closter. I tend to get involved in everything in the community, and I am happy to be part of it.”

Because her family is Christian, her children get to be thoroughly and intentionally Jewish but also to be part of the rhythms of Christian family life as well, she said; it’s an interesting and enriching way to grow up.

There’s something Jewish about the way she began to think about her book, Ms. Maxfield said. She interviews people and reports out their stories, and then she moves on, but “I still think about the people at their center,” she said. “From a Jewish perspective, there is the notion of asking for forgiveness at the High Holy Days, as you go into the new year. To make amends. I have sat in the synagogue for many years thinking about whether I owed apologies to some of the people who I have covered in the news.

“Did I help them by covering their stories? Or did I amplify some of their pain? I wanted to reach out and make sure that I didn’t owe them an apology.”

There’s an odd relationship between her, as a reporter, and the people she interviews, Ms. Maxfield said. “I often talk to people on the worst days of their life. It is often traumatic and chaotic. They still may be in shock.

“If someone doesn’t want to do an interview with me, I always take no for an answer. But so many people chose to speak with us. A lot of people answer their door and open the door and start talking.”

Why?

“I think that there is a human impulse to share stories, to tell your story,” she said. “I think that people also want to be sure that the story is told accurately. And from an emotional standpoint, what I have seen is that there does seem to be something cathartic about talking about something that happened to you.

“We” — when she interviews, Ms. Maxfield is not alone. There’s a camera person and a technical team with her — “are not family. We are not a friend. We are neutral. We are strangers. It seems that there is something cathartic about that.

“I do sometimes worry about whether we should be monopolizing someone’s time during these challenging times in their lives — do they look back and regret it? — but my research for the book has shown that the quote about news being the first rough draft of history is true.

Ms. Maxfield stands in the snow at Columbia, where she had been both an undergraduate and a graduate student.

“And by sharing their stories, putting them out into the public eye, it sometimes presents a way for them to enact change.”

There’s always a tension between the business of interviewing — setting up the technology, telling the story efficiently, making the best of whatever truncated snippets of narrative you can, getting in and out and on to the next thing — and the art of interviewing — establishing the rapport with a person, the genuine if momentary connection that allows a real story to emerge.

“My parents always raised us to treat other people as we want to be treated,” Ms. Maxfield said. “That is the spirit that I approach people with. I try to put myself in their shoes. It allows me to open up to them, and they trust me.

“I have covered thousands of stories over the years, so there does have to be a separation. I have to be able to get some distance from a story. That’s what has allowed me to continue to do this over the decades.”

Some of the stories Ms. Maxfield writes about in her book are hard to read without crying. She retells the story of the young man whose legs were amputated but survived the 2003 Staten Island ferry crash, due in large measure to the extraordinary nurse, visiting New York from the United Kingdom, who saw that he was alive and stayed with him, administering first aid, until he got to the hospital. Ms. Maxfield talks to the survivor, Paul Esposito, in her book.

She writes about the horrendous bus accident that killed a Paramus middle school student and teacher and injured many others in 2018, and how covering a story like that as a parent makes boundaries between professional and personal lives feel porous. She talks to a young survivor, Zaina Matahen, and her parents, in her book.

“As tragic as some of these stories are, I hope that the takeaway for the viewer — no, I mean the reader! — is that there is a lot of hope and optimism in them. Even though these people have been through the worst that life has to offer, in so many cases, they emerge with hope. They have triumphed.”

Ms. Maxfield is involved in many local organizations. “I started volunteering for the Center for Food Action in Englewood, stacking their pantry shelves, when I was in high school,” she said; after she moved back to Bergen County, she resumed her volunteer work there, although she no longer stacks shelves. She works with the Women’s Rights Information Center in Englewood, the Bergen Family Center, and Jewish Women International, and she’s active at the JCC and Temple Emanu-El.

Getting involved in helping other people is a family value for her, she said; “my husband and my son were two of the 11 people who went to Poland and Ukraine in March with Rabbi Kirshner,” to help Ukrainian refugees at the border. “Trevor was the only kid,” she said proudly; Trevor and Scott Ostfeld collaborated on an op ed about the experience that was published in USA Today.

Jen Maxfield has spoken about her new book for the Jewish Book Council, and will tour Jewish organizations, including the JCC in Tenafly, to talk about it.


Who: Jen Maxfield

What: Will talk about her new book, “More After the Break”

Where: At the Kaplen JCC on the Palisades in Tenafly

When: On Wednesday, July 13, from 7:30 to 9:30 p.m.

How: She’ll talk with Susan Marenoff-Zausner, the president of the Intrepid Sea, Air and Space Museum in Manhattan, and like Ms. Maxfield a
JCC member.

How much: $18

To buy a ticket: Go to www.jccotp.org and click on the photo of Ms. Maxfield

To learn more: Call Kathy Graff at (201) 408-1454 or kgraff@jccotp.org.

And also: “All proceeds from the admission charge of chai will support programs that alleviate food insecurity in our local community, a cause for which Jen Maxfield has strongly advocated for many years,” according to the JCC.

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