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Thursday, December 25, 2014

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The CJN helps make us who we are

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It’s awkward when a newspaper itself becomes the story. I initially intended to soldier along quietly, writing yet another column as part of the continuing Canadian Jewish conversation that I’ve been privileged to participate in for so many years as a monthly columnist for The Canadian Jewish News.

But a visit to the first-ever CIJA – Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs – western regional conference in Vancouver changed my mind. I need to join the chorus of indignation lamenting the announced closing of this important publication.

The sold-out conference was itself an extraordinary story. More than 300 people showed up at 8 a.m. on a beautiful May Sunday to spend 13 hours celebrating Israel, renewing their Zionist vision, fighting anti-Zionism and denouncing antisemitism. The passion and commitment, and that perfect balance of outrage against our enemies and optimism about our future, fuelled the conference, which culminated with an eloquent, affirming, pro-Israel, pro-Canada, and pro-democracy address by Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird.

Listening to Baird, I was once again struck by the tale of two Canadian JBs.

On one hand, Justin Bieber recently embarrassed himself by signing the Anne Frank house guestbook and giving this iconic Holocaust victim the self-congratulatory celebrity salute that if only she had lived, this “wonderful girl” would have been a “Belieber.”

On the other hand, we have John Baird, who has helped change the stereotype of Canadian diplomats from pathologically nice appeasers to heroic knights standing on principle, no matter how unpopular it makes them at the United Nations, the Third World dictators’ debating society.

Repeatedly, during this rich, interesting day, people approached me to say welcome and farewell. After introducing themselves, they said how sorry they were that The CJN was closing and that, in a sense, our relationship was ending. These conversations reaffirmed my belief that the Canadian Jewish community should not allow The Canadian Jewish News to close – for the Canadian Jewish community’s sake.

The CJN’s print edition is a tangible reminder, week after week, of our multi-dimensional community connection. Over the years, it has been a mainstay in so many Canadian homes, serving as a weekly agenda-setter and discussion-prompter politically, culturally, spiritually and intellectually. How many of us have started important conversations over the years about who we are and who we wish to be, by saying “Did you see this CJN article” or “Did you see that picture in The CJN”?

When Anthony Lewis, the great New York Times columnist, recently died, I saw his picture with his obituary. I was shocked. I had spent so many hours reading his columns, but I had never seen his picture. I nevertheless felt I had a deep, intimate relationship with him. Reading does that.

The strong reaction to The CJN closing announcement reflects that intimacy. The CJN is not a person, but many people’s sadness has been downright funereal. The CJN has been a regular fixture in their homes for decades. For example, I always know where The CJN sits in my father-in-law’s house. When I visit, I often pass that shelf, stop, take a look and continue – even if I already read the issue when it had arrived in my house cover-to-cover. The CJN is like that – it covers such a wide range of issues, reflecting our community’s multi-dimensionality, that every time you pick it up, you see something else. You find a different gateway into our community.

In this virtual and individuated age, tangible expressions of our connections to each other are increasingly rare. We as a community should be able to afford to keep this priceless publication afloat, for our sake. We need a community sounding board. We need a community bulletin board. We need a town crier. We need a town hall. We need a publication to cover important events like CIJA’s conference. We need more voices making sure our youth turn out to be like the noble JB, John Baird, not the superficial JB.

The Canadian Jewish News has served these functions and so many others with distinction over the years. I am not yet ready to eulogize this important publication. I challenge our leaders and our philanthropists not to be penny wise and pound foolish: make the necessary investment to keep The Canadian Jewish News informing us and inspiring us, uniting us and riling us – in short, keeping us an “us.”

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