They say the more things change, the more they stay the same. This can certainly be said about the Ottawa Jewish Bulletin, which is celebrating its 80th anniversary in 2017. Despite changes in design, focus, content, personnel, length, and frequency of publication, for eight decades the newspaper has been the unwavering voice of Ottawa’s Jewish community.
The first edition, published on October 22, 1937 by the Ottawa Jewish Community Council, proclaimed the newspaper to be “a force for constructive communal consciousness.” This goal continues to be the Bulletin’s philosophy and motivation. Indeed, that statement still appears in the masthead of every issue, along with its mission to communicate “the messages of the Jewish Federation of Ottawa and its agencies” and its aim “as the city’s only Jewish newspaper” to “inform, inspire and enrich the lives of all members of this diverse community.”
For 80 years, the Ottawa Jewish Bulletin has recorded the events and opinions of the time. In doing so, it has preserved the history of the growing and ever-changing Jewish community, documenting the lifestyles, priorities and concerns of generations of Ottawa Jews – and it has continued to be the “official” organ of Ottawa’s Jewish community. Since the evolution of the Ottawa Jewish Community Council/Vaad Ha’Ir into the Jewish Federation of Ottawa, the Federation president and CEO – currently Andrea Friedman – has also been the Bulletin’s publisher.
Beginning life as a four-page publication devoted mostly to announcing community events, the Bulletin is now a dynamic newspaper – with issues typically ranging from 24 to 40 pages or more, even swelling to as many as 80 pages at Rosh Hashanah or Passover – that provides coverage and analysis of local, national and international stories and issues of concern to the Jewish community.
In 2013, the paper underwent a major design transformation. In addition to a new layout, typeface, paper quality and editorial focus, its on-line presence was dramatically changed.
In the age of social media, the revamped web site became a vehicle to engage the community in an interactive conversation. For the first time, the print edition was fully accessible to anyone on the Internet. No longer static, the website contained breaking news, story updates as well as additional content that there was not enough room for in the print version. The website and Bulletin Facebook account allows readers to post comments, opinions and ideas.
“The Bulletin has gone through many changes over these past 76 years, always striving to keep up with technology, with society as a whole, and with the Jewish community in particular,” said Editor Michael Regenstreif four years ago at the official launch of the new design.
At a time when print media readership and subscriptions are declining, a robust online presence is essential to any publication. The reinvigorated web site currently records up to 10,000 visits per month, a significant increase over the old and static site.
“This is the biggest benefit of our online presence. “It gives younger people access to our paper,” Regenstreif said, noting that many people under 50 do not read print newspapers and rely, instead, on online news sources – often through links posted on social media.
As the Bulletin settled into its role as the community voice, it adapted and matured along with the times and the growing Ottawa Jewish community. From the outset, the paper’s stated intention was to unify the community, however over the decades there have been some significant controversial issues that created division rather than harmony.
Remarkably, many of these issues have not changed over time, particularly those related to the availability of fundraising dollars, Jewish identity, and threats to Jewish life and continuity. What has changed is the way the community, and therefore the Bulletin, has voiced its concerns.
In the early days, shaming people into contributing to the Annual Campaign was common. A 1950 commentary told the community that it was their ‘duty’ to donate.
“Your contribution is not an act of charity but is a self-imposed tax, revealing the degree of your Jewish loyalty… In the past, too few have carried the load while too many have not done their share.”
Modern day commentaries continue to note the difficulty of raising funds but also highlight constructive approaches being taken to change this.
In 2013, developing the next generation of leaders and philanthropists was identified as a priority. This group of young professionals was called the “emerging generation,” and numerous programs were successfully introduced to inspire their community involvement.
Jewish identity has been a frequent Bulletin subject throughout the years. Some concerns have not changed. Many early Bulletin stories dealt with where to buy kosher food in Ottawa and how Jews could coexist in a secular society. In 2014, the Bulletin published an in-depth analysis of the availability of kosher food in Ottawa and the seemingly declining market for it.
On the other hand, evolving open-mindedness and acceptance of alternative lifestyles have significantly changed the realities of Ottawa’s Jewish identity over the years – and this has been reflected in the Bulletin.
A recurring Bulletin topic, beginning with the first edition, was alarm about straying from traditional Judaism. In fact, the paper’s inaugural issue declared that editorially it was committed to “the advancement of Torah-true Judaism.”
That first issue included a commentary written by Rabbi William Margolis, Ottawa’s newly arrived community rabbi, which rebuked modern Jews for forsaking Jewish traditions.
“We who love Torah and Israel refuse to leave our principles to the selfish mercies of such primordials who call themselves modern,” he wrote.
Seventy-six years later, in 2013, the Bulletin announced that Rabbi Elizabeth Bolton had been hired to be the first permanent spiritual leader of Or Haneshamah, Ottawa’s Reconstructionist congregation – the first female rabbi and first openly gay rabbi to lead an Ottawa congregation. The same year, Reform congregation Temple Israel held its first interfaith wedding ceremony and Conservative congregation Agudath Israel became fully egalitarian, thus counting women in a minyan.
A progressive world also presents a unique set of challenges. Whereas in 1945 the migration of Ottawa’s Jewish community westward was seen as a threat to Jewish life, modern-day threats to Ottawa’s Jewish life revolved around the profound issues of declining synagogue membership and declining Jewish day and supplementary school enrolment.
In 2013, low enrolment and financial difficulties led to the amalgamation of Hillel Academy and Yitzhak Rabin High School, renamed the Ottawa Jewish Community School (OJCS) along with the introduction of increased tuition.
Two years later, declining enrolment in the high school division forced OJCS to phase it out.
In 2016, Ottawa’s two Orthodox day schools, Torah Academy of Ottawa and Chabad’s Rambam Day School also announced they were coming together as Torah Day School of Ottawa.
That same year, in an “Emerging Gen” column headlined, “Is it time for a rethink on when Jewish education really begins (June 20, 2016), Stephanie Shefrin lamented the lack of Jewish daycare.
A diverse and shifting contemporary Jewish community also resulted in the transformation of the long-established Ottawa synagogue scene.
An in-depth Bulletin analysis of Ottawa’s synagogues (“Ottawa’s synagogues tackle existential challenges,” November 25, 2013) revealed an interesting dichotomy.
Dwindling membership and rising costs were threatening Ottawa’s major synagogues. In 2013, Beth Shalom – a formerly Orthodox congregation that had become Conservative in recent years – sold its building on Chapel Street and began merger talks with Agudath Israel. The two Conservative congregations amalgamated in 2016 to form Kehillat Beth Israel.
At the same time, some of Ottawa’s alternative synagogue options were thriving. As noted, Reconstructionist congregation Or Haneshamah hired its first permanent spiritual leader in 2013 while Ottawa Torah Centre Chabad opened its new $4 million facility in 2014, Ottawa’s first new synagogue building in 30 years.
The Glebe Shul, a JET program for young adults established in 2011 in the home of Rabbi Michael and Stacy Goldstein was so popular that many of its programs had a waiting list.
Ottawa’s spiritual life was also greatly impacted by a large-scale turnover in rabbinical leadership. In 2013, after 46 years at the helm of Machzeki Hadas, Rabbi Reuven Bulka announced his coming retirement. Rabbi Idan Scher became spiritual leader of the Modern Orthodox congregation in 2015.
Rabbi Steven Garten, Temple Israel’s longest serving rabbi, retired in 2014 and was replaced by Rabbi S. Robert Morais. In 2016, Rabbi Eytan Kenter became spiritual leader of Kehillat Beth Israel, the Conservative congregation created by the amalgamation of Beth Shalom and Agudath Israel.
Milestones and archives
Beginning with the death of Lillian Freiman in 1940, when an entire issue was dedicated to her, community milestones and news events have always been a vital part of Bulletin content. In recent years, some of those news events have been shocking – including anti-Semitic graffiti on community buildings (2016) and bomb threats to Jewish community centres across North America (2017) – but more often, the Bulletin has been the purveyor of informative, educational, entertaining and often upbeat content.
The building or creation of community institutions, such as Ottawa’s first Jewish Community Centre (1946), Hillel Academy (1949), Hillel Lodge (1965), Tamir (1980), Yitzhak Rabin High School (1995), the Our Dream Our Legacy capital campaign resulting in the Jewish Community Campus (1996), the revitalization of the Bank Street Cemetery (2015), and many other memorable historic events were all chronicled in 80 years of Bulletin issues.
In 2017, thanks to a grant from the City of Ottawa and the Ottawa Jewish Historical Society, all 80 years of Bulletin issues (more than 1,000) became universally accessible online, at no cost to the user.
“This digitization project opens our collection to the community at large, not just Ottawa,” said Ottawa Jewish Archives archivist Saara Mortensen, the guiding force behind the project. “It is a unique collection that chronicles the development of a small immigrant community into a vital group contributing much to Ottawa life.”
Ottawa Jewish Bulletin issues dating from 1937 until 2009 are now accessible at https://archive.org/details/ottawajewisharchives. Meanwhile, PDF and page-flip versions of all issues from September 3, 2007 until the present are available in the “Library” section of the Bulletin’s own website at www.ottawajewishbulletin.com.
Twelve editors have been at the helm of the newspaper over its 80-year history.
The newspapers put together by founding editor Myer K. Epstein were devoted primarily to community announcements. For many years, community rabbis, beginning with Rabbi William Margolis, then Rabbi Oscar Fasman and Rabbi Simon Eckstein, acted as the Bulletin editors. One of the many tasks taken on by Hy Hochberg during his 39 years at the helm of the Ottawa Jewish Community Council/Vaad Ha’Ir (now the Jewish Federation of Ottawa) was to act as editor for a period. There was very little that changed in the newspaper style or content during that time except for the introduction of photos in 1938.
In 1974, Joseph Peimer was hired as the Bulletin’s first professional editor. That same year, the Bulletin merged with the Ottawa Jewish Digest and Review, a publication of Young Israel of Ottawa, and was renamed the Ottawa Jewish Bulletin and Review. In 1993, the paper reverted to its original name – Ottawa Jewish Bulletin.
When Gaye Applebaum took over as editor in 1976, the paper began including more in-depth articles, adding pages and editorial content. Editors Nancy Zelman (1978) and Jeff Bien (1979) maintained the status quo, but when Cynthia Engel took over in 1980, the Bulletin really began to evolve as a community newspaper.
Engel’s homespun editor’s columns became one of the paper’s most popular items. In addition to the rabbinic commentary, which appeared in every edition, Engel introduced a variety of new columns. For the first time, the paper included advertising. In 1990, the Bulletin received an award for excellence in public relations from the Council of Jewish Federations.
Engel held her position for 12 years, earning her the distinction of being the Bulletin’s longest-serving editor to date. Myra Aronson replaced her in 1992 and continued to transform the paper into a broader, more comprehensive source of information.
With no budget for a wire service subscription, content was local and self-generated, but Aronson expanded coverage and the scope of columns. She also began assigning human-interest stories to freelance writers.
In 1995 the Bulletin took a giant technological leap when it hired Brenda Van Vliet to be production manager and transitioned from cut-and-paste production to computerized layout and in-house design of ads. Van Vliet served in the position for 22 years, working with three Bulletin editors, until her retirement earlier this year.
When Barry Fishman took over as editor in 2001, he pledged to continue “this proud tradition of community,” in his first editor’s column. Fishman’s vision of community was intelligent, informed and open-minded and so he further broadened the Bulletin’s scope.
Now able to take advantage of a wire service – the Jewish Telegraphic Association (JTA) – Fishman included more stories about Israel and the world Jewish community, articles that provided an outlook never before seen in the Bulletin. His editor’s columns were often political and sometimes controversial, also something never before seen in the Bulletin. In 2003, the paper began to include pages in full colour.
After seven years at the helm, Fishman was forced to retire due to the debilitating effects of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS). He passed away in 2009 and a scholarship fund was established in his memory to support a summer student internship position at the Bulletin.
The Bulletin’s current editor, Michael Regenstreif, joined the paper in August 2007 and spent six months working closely with Fishman as assistant editor before taking over in February 2008. He has remained faithful to Fishman’s vision for the newspaper and expanded on it. He is especially proud of the revamped editorial philosophy introduced in 2013, which includes more comprehensive analysis of broader issues as well as a dynamic on-line presence.
“I’ve tried to expand the range of voices to be reflective of the community,” said Regenstreif. “I most like the columns where people step forward to have a say on issues important to the Jewish world and important to them as members of the Jewish community.”
In addition to the regularly scheduled columns, Regenstreif welcomes members of the community to submit guest columns and letters-to-the-editor on issues of concern to the Jewish community.
For its first 43 years, the Ottawa Jewish Bulletin was free of charge and mailed to local households. Later, snowbirds and relocated Ottawans were added to the circulation. In 1980, faced with rising costs, the Bulletin began charging out-of-towners a $10 subscription fee.
But that was not enough to reduce overhead. One attempt to cover escalating costs was to not charge donors to the UJA (now the Federation Annual Campaign) but all others, except for newcomers who were given the paper free for six months, had to pay.
That didn’t work either. The Bulletin hired its first full-time business manager, whose primary responsibility was generating revenue through advertising. Although highly successful, it was still not enough to get out of deficit.
In the early-1990s, in order to qualify for reduced postage rates and government funding, the paper incorporated as the Ottawa Jewish Bulletin Publishing Company, Limited.
At the same time, the Bulletin became entirely subscription-based, with two free “community-wide” issues each year. Local subscriptions were set at $18 annually and rose to $30 by 1998. Remarkably, despite constantly mounting printing and mailing costs, rates did not increase again until 2014 when local subscriptions rose to $36.
Eighty years ago, in the inaugural issue, managing editor Myer K. Epstein described the Ottawa Jewish Bulletin as “a community newspaper, owned by the community, and maintained (we hope) by the community.”
Although, at the time, its future may have been in doubt, Epstein enthusiastically described the paper’s fundamental mission: “We feel the Bulletin to be the answer to a crying need among Ottawa Jewry for a coordinating, unifying medium of expression through which our various movements and organizations will be enabled to promulgate their activities and objectives,” he said.
Evolving over eight decades into so much more than simply a medium for community announcements, Epstein would surely be pleased to know that the Bulletin has not only endured but also that its central role in bringing the community together has remained constant.
Indeed, according to Regenstreif, it remains the voice of the collective Ottawa Jewish community.
“The entire range of our diverse community is represented in the Bulletin,” he said. “Every organization communicates individually with their members but they all come together in the pages of the Ottawa Jewish Bulletin.”
Note: Saara Mortensen of the Ottawa Jewish Archives assisted with research for this article.