By Michael Regenstreif, Editor
Well, here we are, it’s the last day of 2020 and this column, my 235th “From the Editor” column since 2008, is my swan song as editor of the Ottawa Jewish Bulletin. Sadly, it is also the swan song of the Bulletin after 83 years of publication.
The Ottawa Jewish Bulletin was founded in 1937 by the Ottawa Jewish Community Council/Vaad Ha’Ir (now the Jewish Federation of Ottawa), which stated the Bulletin was to be “a force for constructive communal consciousness.”
In 2013, when the Bulletin received it’s most recent design makeover, that goal from 1937 was placed in our masthead along with the mission statement to communicate “the messages of the Jewish Federation of Ottawa and its agencies” and our aim “as the city’s only Jewish newspaper” to “inform, inspire and enrich the lives of all members of this diverse community.”
“Ours is a community newspaper, owned by the community, and maintained (we hope) by the community,” wrote editor Myer K. Epstein in his welcoming statement in the first 1937 issue, and Epstein and the 11 editors – including myself – who followed him have strived to fulfil the mandate through changing times, changing technologies and an Ottawa Jewish community that has constantly evolved. Over the decades, the Bulletin has strived to tell the story – the stories – of our community’s evolution.
When the Bulletin began publishing in 1937, Ottawa’s Jewish community was very different than it is today. Back then, the community was much smaller than it is now. It was geographically concentrated downtown in the adjacent Lowertown and Sandy Hill neighbourhoods, and its synagogues were exclusively Orthodox. There were not yet any Jewish day schools in the city and the network of Jewish social service agencies we know today had yet to develop.
In contrast, the Ottawa Jewish community of today is about four times the size it was in 1937 and it spreads out across the city and suburbs. Ottawa now has congregations reflecting all of the major Jewish denominations, two Jewish day schools, several supplementary schools, and a variety of social service agencies taking care of the vulnerable among us.
I moved to Ottawa in the summer of 2007 to work at the Ottawa Jewish Bulletin – as assistant editor for the first six months and as editor since February 2008. Last February, I became the Bulletin’s longest serving editor in the paper’s 83-year history.
And there has been much evolution in the community just in the 13-and-a-half years I’ve been here. We’ve reported on so much – including the amalgamation of schools and congregations; changing leadership at both the lay and professional levels; the emergence of an emphasis on services and programming for the emerging generation and young families; and, most recently, how the community has risen to meet the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic.
One of the most interesting developments I’ve written about in the Bulletin has been how the face of the clergy in the city has changed as non-Orthodox congregations have embraced egalitarianism and diversity. In 2013, it was a major story when Ottawa’s first female and LGBTQ rabbi arrived in the city. Now, there are others, and it is no longer an issue.
As mentioned, I had 11 predecessors as editor of the Ottawa Jewish Bulletin and I stood on the shoulders of all who came before me. I will mention two of them in particular: Cynthia (Cindy) Engel and Barry Fishman.
Cindy was editor of the Bulletin for 12 years beginning in 1980 and during her tenure the paper truly evolved into the big-tent journal it has been over the past 40 years. Cindy has been incredibly supportive over the years as I’ve faced the challenges of editing the newspaper and telling the stories of the community.
Barry was the Bulletin’s editor for about seven years beginning in 2001. His vision of community was intelligent, informed and open-minded and he further broadened the Bulletin’s scope, including subscribing to the wire service serving Jewish newspapers around the world, the Jewish Telegraphic Association (JTA), to provide stories about Israel and Jewish communities around the world. Barry’s editor’s columns were often political and sometimes controversial, also something never before seen in the Bulletin.
When I was hired to fill the newly-created and temporary position of assistant editor, it was following Barry’s diagnosis with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, a terrible disease in which the muscles of the body too-quickly break down. People with ALS ultimately lose their ability to walk, to talk, to eat on their own, and then even to swallow and breathe. While the body breaks down, the mind remains intact.
The goal in my hiring was to work with Barry as long as possible and then, hopefully, take over as editor. I worked with Barry for six months – learning much from him, becoming a friend, and sadly, watching the fast progression of his disease. Barry stepped down in February 2008 and I became the Bulletin’s editor. Sadly, Barry passed away on October 22, 2009 at just 58.
As editor, I attempted to remain faithful to Barry’s vision for the Bulletin and to expand on it. I’ve tried to expand the range of voices in the paper to be reflective of the community’s diversity of thought. In fact, what I’ve most appreciated in the Bulletin are the opinion columns in which people have come forward to have a say on issues important to the Jewish world, or important to them as members of the Jewish community. In addition to the regularly scheduled columns, I have always encouraged members of the community to submit guest columns and letters-to-the-editor on issues of concern to the Jewish community.
The internet-social-media era of the past decade has been hard on almost all newspapers and magazines at almost every level, almost everywhere – and this has been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. Even before the pandemic, many newspapers and magazines shifted to online-only models, and many others ceased operations entirely.
In March, the Bulletin suspended the print edition and pivoted to website-only publishing of articles and columns for what we thought would be a short, temporary period. The plan was to return to publishing the print edition as soon as possible. Unfortunately, in October, the board of our parent organization, the Jewish Federation of Ottawa, came to the hard decision that the Ottawa Jewish Bulletin was no longer financially viable and that our operations would close at the end of the year. I’ve no doubt that it was a hard decision to make.
I turned 65 in 2019 and decided then that I wasn’t yet ready to retire. I recovered from open-heart surgery to replace my aortic valve in 2018 and was then, as now, feeling healthier and stronger than I had in decades. I thought I would stay on the job for another few years before handing off the Bulletin to its next editor.
I regret that that’s not now the case. More than that, though, I’m sorry that the Jewish community of Ottawa is losing its newspaper, an institution that has helped bind the community together, and build community, for 83 years.
As a people, Jews have always valued literacy and Jewish community newspapers have had an important role to play since the 1800s – if not before. Sadly, many Jewish community newspapers around the world have disappeared in recent years. Almost all remaining Jewish newspapers are struggling at some level and I fear more will disappear in the coming years.
There are so many people who have contributed to the Bulletin during my tenure as editor and although I can’t possibly mention them all by name, I do want to say thank you to all of them, and mention a few.
The Bulletin has had several business managers during my years taking care of advertising and subscriptions: Rhoda Saslove-Miller, Cindy Manor, Barry Silverman, Jody Roodman and, from 2016 until now, Eddie Peltzman.
When I started at the Bulletin, I quickly learned what a great resource production manager Brenda Van Vliet was. Until she retired in 2017, Brenda worked at the Bulletin for 22 years and, in addition to her layout skills, she was a great source of institutional memory. After Brenda retired, our layout was in the skilled hands of production consultant Patti Moran.
We’ve had a number of terrific young journalists serve as our summer interns over the years – some of whom became reliable freelance reporters for periods of time. They include Liana Schlien, Jacqueline Shabsove, Ilana Belfer, Alex Baker, Monique Elliot, Hannah Berdowski, Michael Aareneau, Norah Mor, and Matthew Horwood.
Other freelance reporters whose work has enhanced the Bulletin over these past 13 years have included Benita Baker, former editor Cynthia Engel, Diane Koven, Louise Rachlis and Dana Simpson.
There are many photographers whose work has graced our pages over the years but among the most prolific and reliable have been Howard Sandler and Peter Waiser.
I mentioned earlier that my favourite part of the Bulletin has been the opinion columns. Among the regular opinion columnists over the years have been Jason Moscovitz, Barbara Crook, Alan Echenberg, Mira Sucharov, Oliver Javanpour, Stephanie Shefrin, Sarah Waisvisz, and Rabbi Steven Garten. Other long-time columnists have included Rubin Friedman on humour, Cindy Feingold on food, Gloria Schwartz on fitness, as well as all the pulpit rabbis, all the Federation chairs, and many other committee and agency representatives.
There are also many community members who have contributed book reviews to the Bulletin. Some of them include columnists who have already been mentioned, but one other I must single out is Murray Citron, whose visits to the Bulletin office I’ve missed since we started working at home during the pandemic.
I’ve also appreciated working closely with the staff of the Jewish Federation of Ottawa, the Bulletin’s parent organization. There are too many people over the years to mention, but I will single out the two Federation CEOs I’ve worked with – first Mitchell Bellman, and since 2013, Andrea Freedman – who have also filled the role of the Bulletin publisher. I will also single out the two Federation communications managers – at first Francie Greenspoon, and since 2013, Pauline Colwin – whose portfolios included the day-to-day affairs of the Bulletin.
I’m sure there are many other names who could have been mentioned – who should have been mentioned. My apologies to those I missed.
All of our lives have been tremendously difficult in 2020. So much has been on hold during the pandemic and there have been so many lives lost to COVID. Hopefully, with vaccines now beginning to roll out, 2021 will eventually return us to some sort of normalcy.
Truth be told, the past couple of months since the announcement of the Bulletin’s end have been emotional and difficult. It’s not easy to see something one has invested so much time and effort into over so many years come to an end. However, I have taken much comfort in the supportive emails, Facebook messages and phone calls I’ve received from so many readers – many of them Bulletin readers for much longer than I’ve been the editor. I thank everyone who has reached out.
Despite always limited resources, the Ottawa Jewish Bulletin has done some very good work over more than eight decades. It’s been an honour to serve as editor these last 13 years.