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New Jersey Jewish News succumbs at 74

New Jersey Jewish News succumbs at 74

‘Chronicle of the Jewish community’ ceases publication

Staff Writer, New Jersey Jewish News

NJJN staffers taste test varieties of sufganiyot, jelly donuts, and Moroccan treats for Chanukah.
NJJN staffers taste test varieties of sufganiyot, jelly donuts, and Moroccan treats for Chanukah.

For more than 70 years, the New Jersey Jewish News (NJJN) has been essential Shabbat reading. Its pages have reported the Jewish issues of the day, from the declaration of Israeli statehood and the trial of Adolf Eichmann to the struggle for Soviet Jewry; from celebrations of early b’not mitzvah to the hiring of female clergy; from upheaval in late 1960s Newark to Jewish participation in #BlackLivesMatter protests; from the raid on Entebbe to murders in Pittsburgh, Poway, and Jersey City. While examining controversies within the Jewish community and providing an ethnic lens for local and national news, it also spotlighted the area’s people, places, and general goings-on. It is the chronicle of the Jewish community in this part of the state.

This week’s issue marks the final print publication. 

As historian Jonathan Sarna points out in The New York Jewish Week, NJJN’s sister publication, on the demise of the printed newspaper — which follows the closure in April of the Canadian Jewish News and the Forward’s 2019 move to digital-only publication — “Closures, mergers, and digital makeovers are inevitable.”

When Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ sold NJJN to The Jewish Week Media Group in 2016, it was perhaps the first step in this direction. Still, NJJN has had a storied run with a trajectory mirroring the fortunes and interests of the community it covered.

The New Jersey Jewish News was founded in 1946 as The Jewish News by the Jewish Community Council of Essex County. Conceived as a tool for the 1946 UJA campaign, according to Jill Hershorin, archivist at the Jewish Historical Society of New Jersey (JHS), its potential became clear to community leaders within six weeks. That’s when the council decided to purchase the already existing Jewish Times of Essex County (part of a chain of papers from New York to Philadelphia) and incorporate the paper in January 1947.

The NJJN office, once housed in the Aidekman Jewish Community Campus in Whippany and located in Parsippany since 2018, has decades of paper editions contained in bound tomes. Leafing through the yellowed pages from one volume containing issues dated July through December 1975 takes a reader back to big headlines, like the passage of the United Nations resolution that Zionism is racism; local news, like a synagogue visit from Moshe Dayan; and seismic societal shifts, like women becoming clergy — one of the first three women invested in the cantorate by the Reform movement’s Hebrew Union College School of Sacred Music was hired by a local New Jersey synagogue. 

Small articles and advertisements offer a reflection of our day-to-day lives. For example, while a movie theater in Maplewood advertised screenings of “Jaws,” the Y and UJA publicized its first joint mission to Israel for families; the Livingston Division of NCJW held a study group on repealing marijuana laws; and Jewish Vocational Service and the YM-YWHA of Metropolitan NJ launched the sixth season of “Project Eve,” for women pursuing jobs or volunteer positions so they could see they were “not alone in their anxieties about stepping ‘outside the home.’” Flanken spareribs were $1.39 a pound at Seroff’s Kosher Meat Market in Irvington, and Gruning’s in South Orange advertised a lunch special for $1.95.

No matter what headlines splashed across the front pages, many readers turned first to NJJN’s listing of lifecycle events: b’nei mitzvah, weddings, engagements, and obituaries. 

“[NJJN] was our weekly companion informing us of the joys and sadness witnessed by our friends and neighbors,” said Max Kleinman, a contributing writer and former executive vice president of Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ. “It served as our weekly schedule of the events that graced our community’s synagogues and institutions.”

Through it all, NJJN has had the role of marking generational shifts: the move from Newark to its suburbs, the building of synagogues, the embrace of day schools, changing priorities of federations, and now, the decline of some beloved institutions, the merging of synagogues, and the demise of this newspaper.

Behind-the-scenes discussions at the paper reveal the trigger points in the community. According to archives from JHS, regularly appearing on the agenda of board meetings were conversations about non-kosher restaurants advertising; whether to include intermarriages in wedding listings; and, in the early 1970s, what to do about delinquent accounts related to 1967 violence in Newark. On the agenda of a 1959 board meeting: the complaint made by Temple B’nai Jeshurun’s Rabbi Ely Pilchik that the paper did not have enough content about Judaism.

The paper has been led by seven editors: Allen Lesser, Harry Weingast, Charles Baumohl, David Frank, David Twersky, Andrew Silow-Carroll, and Gabe Kahn. Whatever their focus, whether politics or community life, hard news or soft features, they set a high bar and that’s reflected in the numerous awards the paper has received over the decades. In the JHS files is a 1963 award the paper received from the New Jersey Press Association (NJPA) for “Hold the Phone — The Doorbell’s Ringing,” its “woman’s page feature” written by “Mrs. Lester Schachter” under the pen name of Marjorie Kind.

(Editor’s Note: In July the American Jewish Press Association announced that NJJN Senior Writer Johanna Ginsberg received a first-place 2020 Simon Rockower Award in the category of Excellence in American Jewish History, for “Research on ‘13 driver’s licenses’ in Germany leads to New Jersey” (Jan. 24, 2019). The story was about a group of Bavarian high school students who spent nine months tracking down descendants of Jewish German citizens whose drivers’ licenses — which turned up in a government office in 2017 — were confiscated in 1938. Three of the licenses belonged to family members of a Livingston resident. Ginsberg also finished second in a different category and NJJN received two honorable mentions for other submissions. The Rockower Awards — Jewish journalism’s highest honor — recognize achievements from the previous calendar year.)

In 1988, reflecting the demographic changes in a community that was moving west to the suburbs, the paper was renamed MetroWest Jewish News. In 1997, it acquired The Jewish Horizon of Union and Somerset counties; a new name, New Jersey Jewish News; and a new focus on Jewish issues statewide. Between 1998 and 2005 it added partnerships with other federations and acquired editions, first adding a paper covering the central Jersey federations’ catchment area of Princeton-Mercer-Bucks, and later Middlesex and Monmouth counties.

Although it was once among America’s largest Jewish weekly newspapers, NJJN finishes its run with a circulation of just over 16,000 subscribers.

“What I will miss the most was its role as the marketplace of ideas and viewpoints on the momentous news and issues confronting our community, Israel, and the world,” said Kleinman. 

He added his wish that “this will not be a final farewell, but l’hitraot until a different version of the New Jersey Jewish News will reappear in the not-too-distant future.”

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