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Canada’s Lost Jewish Voice

‘The Canadian Jewish News’ is another victim of the coronavirus

Ari Blaff
April 17, 2020

The coronavirus has claimed another victim: Canadian Jewry’s sole national publication, The Canadian Jewish News.

On April 3, CJN President Elizabeth Wolfe released a statement informing the community of the paper’s closure. “We had hoped that The CJN could play some small role to inform, console, and distract our readers as we all isolate at home,” Wolfe wrote. “It is with great regret that we have realized that we will be unable to do so. Unfortunately, we too have become a victim of COVID-19. Already struggling, we are not able to sustain the enterprise in an environment of almost complete economic shut down.” Citing underlying economic struggles exacerbated by the pandemic, Wolfe informed that the weekly would cease following publication of the next issue.

The CJN’s origins began with Meyer and Dorothy Nurenberger. At the behest of Meyer’s friend and future Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin, the Nurenbergers relocated from New York City to Toronto in 1957 to edit a Yiddish weekly. However, their plans changed soon thereafter, launching The CJN a few years later. The paper aimed at filling a glaring vacancy in Canadian Jewish life. Unlike American Jewry, which to this day continues to boast of a vibrant press catering to specific cities and political leanings, for Canadian Jews, The CJN truly represents the community’s solitary consensus news outlet.

From coast to coast, The CJN informed disparate Jewish communities scattered throughout Canada’s vastness of the happenings in Toronto, Montreal, and Ottawa. For those eagerly awaiting news from the community farther afield, there was only one paper for them. My own mother remembers receiving The CJN in Halifax as a child with anticipation, for it was her family’s only lifeline to the broader community. Nor was my mother alone. Sprinkled across Atlantic Canada—New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island, and Newfoundland/Labrador—once-vibrant Jewish communities called towns such as Halifax, Sydney, Fredericton, and St. John’s home. Isolated from the metropoles of Canadian Jewish life, The CJN brought perspective and a sense of communal identity—a togetherness, which these communities (mostly measured in the dozens or hundreds) yearned for. As Bernie Farber, the former CEO of the Canadian Jewish Congress and a regular contributor to The CJN, told The National Post: “I think it was the paper of record to the Jewish community and I’m heartbroken to see it folding at this time … There is no other paper. This was it. So, along with everything else that’s going on right now, this just adds another level of sadness.”

The publication assisted those unfamiliar with the community in interpreting the latest developments and the issues most central to Canadian Jewry life. As then-Prime Minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau (1968-1979) wrote in a High Holidays letter to the paper when he was the country’s leader: “In many primitive religions the idea of brotherhood applied only to members of the same faith. The lesson of our great religious leaders is that it should extend to all humanity. In this spirit, The Canadian Jewish News was founded and continues to be published.” Nor was the elder Trudeau the only Canadian political leader to look to The CJN. Throughout the publication’s zenith, according to The National Post; Prime Minister John Diefenbaker (1957-1963) personally sought out Meyer Nurenberger’s advice on improving bilateral Canadian-Israeli ties.

Initially, the newspaper’s popularity led to economic stability. As Jesse Kline, a CJN alumnus now at The National Post, reported, though initially catering to Torontonians, by the mid-1970s the paper opened a Montreal bureau, hiring additional staff and publishing separate editions. The paper, though, was not inoculated to the broader decline in print media. Accompanying the rise of the internet and social media came cratering advertising revenues. The CJN first closed its doors in April 2013 due to, as then-CJN President Donald Carr wrote, “the tsunami-like changes that are currently sweeping across the print media industry.” Nonetheless, Carr’s initial pessimism proved to be short-lived as the community galvanized to rescue the paper mere months later. Reducing newsroom staff, relocating headquarters, closing down operations in Quebec, raising subscription prices, and building an online presence all aimed to shore up the newer, sleeker, CJN.

Tucked within Carr’s statement was a telling confession, often hard to quantify, but implicitly understood among many community members: “For the most part, the attractions of printed paper are welcome experiences only for an older generation and appear to be destined to be things of the past.” In many respects, Carr’s commentary spoke to a deeper truth about perceptions of The CJN as out of sync with younger generations. Its bullpen of rotating weekly contributors featured such notables as Gerald Steinberg, Gil Troy, Barbara Kay, and Michael Taube; however, younger voices were noticeably absent, apart from periodic updates from college, summer camp, or Birthright.

Perhaps this was simply a reflection of broader societal trends within the community. However, recent academic research suggests otherwise. Modeled to emulate the Pew 2013 portrait of American Jewry, the 2018 Survey of Canadian Jews demonstrated marked distinctions between the communities. “The magnitude of the difference revealed by this survey is so large that it nonetheless strikes one as remarkable,” the authors maintained. This “Canadian Jewish Exceptionalism,” manifested itself in considerably lower intermarriage rates than their American counterparts, as well as greater likelihoods to read or speak Hebrew, and to visit Israel. Nevertheless, despite this apparent communal cohesion, Canadian Jews’ decadelong struggle to retain and promote a single successful nationwide publication continued.

Unfortunately, the reforms enacted several years ago were of little avail. The rapid changes wrought by technology, globalization, and now, a pandemic, weighed heavily upon CJN Editor-in-Chief Yoni Goldberg’s latest weekly note. Published mere days before the paper’s closure was publicly revealed, Goldberg alluded to the Jewish experience in Egypt as a parallel to our own. “In a time of crisis, the official Egyptian response was to pretend the signs weren’t there, to act as if nothing had changed. Meanwhile, so the story goes, the Jews were planning for the future. They recognized, with the help of strong leadership, that things were indeed changing.”

He concluded: “The good news is that Canadian Jewish organizations, big and small, are already reacting powerfully to this [health] crisis. It suggests that our community is well-positioned for the changes in the air. Now we have to put in the work to make it happen.” Squaring such optimism with the publication’s abrupt shutdown is hard to reconcile. As one longtime CJN columnist privately reflected to me over email, it was not entirely unexpected, but still jarring, nonetheless.

The CJN’s continued basis as a print-oriented publication, a feature still cherished among many Canadian Jews, is a further point of distinction compared to similar American communal publications. Increasingly, research has demonstrated that the general public, and younger cohorts specifically, are getting news online. A 2019 Pew Research Center report found over half of American adults received news from social media platforms either “often” or “sometimes”: a near 10% annual jump. Compounded by demographic trends that foreshadow a greater emphasis on online content and social media presence, any publication seeking to survive in such circumstances must master this bedrock reality. The CJN, in its latest manifestation, may have been slightly behind the times.

Wolfe remains hopeful that the groundswell of community support that earlier in the decade saved The CJN will resurface. Assuring readers that the board had done everything to ensure the publication’s continued existence, the announcement prompted Wolfe to reflect upon the paper’s earlier closing. Recounting the paper’s shuttering back in the spring of 2013, Wolfe tells of how her mother—a fellow CJN board member—remarked upon the occasion: “It had a good run. Everything has its season. It is time.”

As it does for many Canadian Jews, The CJN holds a dear place in my heart. Little excited my bubbe and zayde more than seeing our last name in the paper when I was a periodic contributor; more than once, they were given clippings from a great-aunt or a sister. Regrettably, and foreseeably, this will be no more. Isolated from families by government mandates for social distancing, the departure of The CJN will now bring communal seclusion as well. It was (and hopefully, one day, will once more be) a mosaic that wove and interconnected friends and family. And that, indeed, was the very essence—the simple beauty—that The CJN captured.

Ari David Blaff is a journalist based in Toronto and writer at Deseret. His writing has appeared in Quillette, National Review, and The Globe & Mail.