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Friday, December 26, 2014

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Why we need to save The CJN

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The great poet and writer Samuel Johnson once opined that “the two offices of memory are collection and distribution.” Indeed, then newspapers are for many the official vehicle that both collect memory and distribute it so that we are all better informed.

Much has been said and written about the possible demise of a veritable institution in this country, The Canadian Jewish News. There was hardly a gathering of Jews anywhere I travelled this week and last week, both inside and outside Toronto, where the discussion did not turn to this distressing news.

And the questions, though obvious, nonetheless beg for answers. What happened? How did the board of The CJN allow this to happen? What can we do?

Before answering the last question, let’s examine the first two.

In the Canadian Jewish community, we seem all too often to take for granted that which has been around for a long time. The organization that I formerly headed, the Canadian Jewish Congress (CJC), was formed in 1919. It spoke on all matters of social justice, human rights and antisemitism. In many ways, it seemed to be more respected outside the Jewish community than within it. Nevertheless, it was also understood to be our conscience and soul. It was very much the voice of Canadian Jewry. But two years ago, in a dramatic re-shaping of Canadian Jewry’s organizational life, it was suddenly gone, as T.S. Eliot might say, “not with a bang but a whimper.”

Even today, at functions and cocktail parties or other gatherings, I am asked about the goings-on at the CJC. When I explain that it no longer exists, I get blank stares and questions of incredulity: “What happened? How can this be?”

Yet here we are today, facing the potential shattering loss to Canadian Jewry of The CJN. However, this time, there seems to be a different feeling in the air. There is a clear recognition that with the potential loss of The CJN, we lose a large piece of who we are as a community of Jews. There will be no communication vehicle left in the country that, for all intents and purposes, is independent, practises professional journalism and unites the Jewish community from coast to coast.

This will have an impact not just on the average community member, but on Jewish communal organizations as well. Be it ORT, Hadassah, JNF or the myriad of acronymic Jewish groups that counted on The CJN to get their information out or dispense their own views of the world, that car, if plans to dismantle the paper continue, will be without fuel.

My friend and colleague, Shimon Fogel, CEO of the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs, which absorbed and replaced the CJC, certainly understood the issue well when he explained recently in an interview, “Absent The CJN, it’s going to create serious challenges for us to ensure an adequate level of awareness of what we do, how we do it and ways [people] can become more directly engaged in the advocacy process.”

Sadly, there is more to this potential loss than meets the eye. Jews have always been people of the book and voracious readers with many opinions. The development of a Jewish press in North America and Canada specifically spoke to a community that grew along with its ability to speak out freely without fear.

As far back as the early 1900s, there was an open and healthy Jewish press in Toronto and Montreal, where the vast majority of Jews lived. Der Yidisher Zshurnal (The Jewish Journal) was Toronto’s first Jewish community daily, published six days a week in Yiddish, the language of eastern European Jews. Similarly, the Adler (the Eagle) fulfilled the same role in Montreal. And over the years, many other Jewish journals and magazines in both English and Yiddish continued to offer new immigrants – and later their children – news about our community. Whether it was the Jewish Standard, the communist-inspired Proletarisher Gedank (which later changed its name to Der Veg – The Way), the Canadian Jewish Review or the Kanader Naies (Canadian News), the competition, editorial stands and provision of community information rarely ceased.

Today, for perhaps the first time in our young history as a Jewish community in Canada, we may be without a trusted journalistic Jewish voice.

To be sure, voices are being raised. To my utter delight and surprise, the strongest of these voices seem to be emanating from a new, younger generation of readers. Twenty-something folks like Rachel Singer and Alana Kayfetz (ironically the niece of the late Ben Kayfetz, one of Canada’s most prolific Jewish journalists and community professionals from days gone by) are putting words into action. Utilizing a 21st-century communications device, the Internet, they have developed a “Save the CJN” campaign” which to date has gathered more than 3,000 digital signatures and close to 50,000 page views.

Playwright Arthur Miller once intoned: “A good newspaper is a nation talking to itself.” Indeed, The CJN talked to a nation of Canadian Jews for more than 40 years. To let it die without a bang would be a disservice to who we are as a people. Perhaps if we stood up this time and as my late father use to say “open a mouth,” we can save us from ourselves.

Bernie Farber is former CEO of Canadian Jewish Congress and current senior vice-president at Gemini Power Corp.

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