Remembering Cindy Engel Z"L

Former long-time Ottawa Jewish Bulletin editor, Michael Regenstreif, shares his memories of one of his predecessors at the Bulletin, Cynthia Nyman Engel Z"L.

Cynthia Nyman Engel, editor of the Ottawa Jewish Bulletin from 1980 until 1992, passed away on January 10 at age 82 following a battle with cancer.

I arrived in Ottawa in the summer of 2007 to become assistant editor of the Bulletin. It was 15 years after she had stepped down as Bulletin editor, but Cindy (as she told me to call her) was still contributing to the Bulletin as a freelance writer, and she quickly became one of my first and best friends in Ottawa’s Jewish community.

My position was created because the Bulletin’s editor, Barry Fishman, had been diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) and would soon be unable to continue working. The idea was that the assistant editor would initially relieve Barry of much of his daily duties and eventually transition to the position of editor.

My background in journalism was primarily as a music critic and feature writer for the Montreal Gazette and Sing Out magazine, among other publications. I also had a strong background in Jewish community journalism having spent more than 15 years as a freelance reporter and feature writer for the Canadian Jewish News, and having written one commissioned book and edited another for Jewish community organizations in Montreal.

While I came to the job with a good understanding of Jewish community issues at the national and international levels, I knew little about Ottawa’s Jewish community. So, one of my principal tasks over the six months I spent as assistant editor of the Bulletin before succeeding Barry in February 2008 was to learn and understand as much as I could about the Jewish community of Ottawa and the history of the Ottawa Jewish Bulletin – the newspaper that had served the community since 1937.

I absorbed information and insights about the community from a number of people, but none, more so, than from Cindy who was then the newspaper’s longest-serving editor.

Cindy, who had grown up in the tiny Jewish community of Cornwall, had tremendous knowledge of, and insight into, Ottawa’s Jewish community. She was able to talk to me about the various congregations, organizations, and people that served them. 

I spent a great deal of time in the Ottawa Jewish Archives reading every back issue of the Ottawa Jewish Bulletin, from the first issue in 1937, until the first issue that I worked on 70 years later. While the Bulletin continually evolved over the course of its history, its biggest steps forward in evolving into a modern newspaper reflective of the Jewish community’s diversity, really came under Cindy’s direction in the 1980s.

Cindy brought diverse voices into the newspaper and also introduced advertising to help supplement the cost of publishing. But my favourite of Cindy’s innovations was the editor’s column. In each issue of the Bulletin, Cindy would write eloquently – sometimes poignantly, sometimes humorously – about a topic of her choosing. Often, it would be about some aspect of Jewish life. In one column, she wrote as a modern Jew who took great joy in attending a very traditional, ultra-Orthodox wedding. In another, she mourned the passing of Moshe Dayan, perhaps Israel’s best-known soldier (and defence minister), who she described as “our modern-day Judah Maccabee.”

In some of her other columns, Cindy wrote about the joys (and sometimes frustrations) of parenthood, particularly Jewish parenthood. I remember one column in which she discussed the precociousness of 1980s Jewish teenagers in matters of sexuality and drug culture, but concluded the kids would turn out all right thanks to the Jewish values with which they were raised.

In an early column as Bulletin editor, Cindy wrote about the importance of respecting the Bulletin’s deadlines – and of how some in the community didn’t think the deadlines applied to them. Forty years later, near the end of my own tenure as Bulletin editor, that hadn’t changed.

Over the years that I edited the Ottawa Jewish Bulletin, I got constant feedback from myriad individuals – from professional colleagues and community activists to readers in the community. But there was no one whose comments meant as much to me as Cindy Engel’s. Four or five times per year, even long after she finally “retired” as a freelance reporter, she’d call me and we’d spend a good hour or so talking about the Bulletin. She still cared deeply about the newspaper she’d been devoted to for so many years and always had astute things to say about community issues, about what I and other columnists were writing about – even about the new design for the paper we unveiled in 2013.

I never felt prouder of the job I was doing as Bulletin editor as when the phone rang and Cindy said the latest edition of the paper was the best issue ever – and she was magnanimous enough to say that to me several times.

Ottawa’s Jewish community is richer for the years of service Cynthia Nyman Engel gave it. And, like so many in the community, I am richer for the years I had as Cindy’s friend.