Sh’ma, R.I.P.: A Small Magazine That Bulked Large

Sh’ma magazine is going out of business. As recently announced by its editor, Susan Berrin, because of “changing reading patterns, the kinds of rich Jewish conversations Sh’ma has sought to spur have become more accessible and even widespread in newer digital formats.” Therefore, Sh’ma’s “days have been numbered,” resulting in its closing its doors, in its 50th year, after 751 issues.

Begun in 1970 as the brainchild of Rabbi Dr. Eugene Borowitz, a towering Reform thinker of the 20th century, it ran for decades under his exceptional leadership. He dubbed it, and it truly served as, “a journal of Jewish responsibility.” Sh’ma of the 21st century was not, however, the Sh’ma of the 1970s; it was not stagnant in either ideas, interests, or format as it evolved from a stand-alone eight-page biweekly print publication (put together around a kitchen table with the able assistance of Alicia Seeger on a shoestring budget), to a 16- (and sometimes 24-) page monthly, to a four-page insert in the Forward, and, finally, to a digital-only edition on the Forward’s website. It was truly iconoclastic and unique as it spoke to the minds and hearts of a wide range of mainly American Jews of all ages and denominations.

Sh’ma was never a glossy publication; never had physical heft; never ran ads; rarely had lengthy or scholarly articles. Modesty was always an important part of its ethos; indeed, in its early years it had the delicious statement on its masthead that “we do not correct obvious typos.” But it exemplified seriousness, pluralism, and independence, was filled with spirited though civil discourse and an amazingly eclectic diversity of ideas and writers, and was infused with wisdom (sometimes), intelligence (often) and decency (always).

Cover page from the earliest issue of Sh’ma that I have in my files from its first year of publication with — a bonus — an article by R. Emaniuel Rackman.

Rabbi Jeffrey Salkin, the spiritual leader of Temple Solel in Hollywood, Florida, a former assistant to Gene at Sh’ma in the late 70s, and a successor to him as rabbi of the Community Synagogue in Port Washington, New York, wrote a deeply touching farewell to Sh’ma called “When a Jewish Magazine Dies.” As a reader of Sh’ma for decades and the author of almost a dozen articles and numerous book reviews appearing in its pages, I was moved to send him the following (slightly revised) email.

“Dear Rabbi Salkin,

“I read your article about the demise of Sh’ma with great interest. Back in 1979, Gene started a Fellows program for Sh’ma, and I applied and was chosen as one of the participants. While it sounded exciting, I didn’t plan on applying since I thought it was geared to Jewish Studies graduate students and I was a lawyer in practice for almost 10 years. My wife, far wiser, said “don’t be ridiculous. You’d love it, it’s perfect for you and you for it, and there’s nothing to lose; go for it.” (She was right on all counts.) And I loved it so much, I participated in two more years as a Fellow in the mid and late 80s. The story that I want to tell you relevant, I think, to your article, happened then.

“It was the 15th anniversary of Sh’ma and some members of the advisory board thought this deserved a celebration. So at a meeting of the board (yes, I was a beginning guitar player sitting in), some members pushed strongly to have a gala celebratory dinner with Gene as guest of honor. He was very reluctant, but they argued that not only did he deserve the honor but that it would be a great fundraising opportunity, and all the money that would be raised could be put into a reserve fund to ensure the continuity of Sh’ma.

“Gene eventually said no. First, he didn’t want the honor; being editor was all the honor he needed. As for the money, he explained that Sh’ma’s expenses were pretty low and were covered by the (also low) subscription fees and a small fundraising appeal he made every year in the last issue which had enough of a response to keep Sh’ma in the black. And then he added: ‘And if we can’t raise enough money in those ways, then I guess the community doesn’t want or need us and we’ll simply close shop. That’s one of the troubles with the Jewish community. We always know how to start new organizations but don’t know how to end them when they’re no longer necessary or useful.’

“As always, Gene was the wisest in the room, though even he may have been surprised at how long Sh’ma actually lasted.

“One final personal story. I’ve been writing articles sporadically for Jewish periodicals since before my time at Sh’ma, and when Gene died I wrote a personal remembrance which I submitted to The Jewish Week. I’ve known Gary Rosenblatt, its then (and until very recently) editor, since college days, and over the years a number of my articles had appeared there. Because of our friendship, Gary and I had an understanding that I could submit anything I wanted and he could reject anything he wanted and we would still remain close friends (as we still are). Gary rejected my piece because, he said, you had already asked him if you could write something for the paper, and it was only right to have a representative of the Reform movement write about Gene, the great Reform theologian of that generation, rather than an ordinary member of the Modern Orthodox community.

“But I had a relationship with Gene that I wanted to air publicly because it told volumes about him. So, as a resident of Bergen County, I submitted my piece to the New Jersey Jewish Standard, which published it. (“Remembering Rabbi Eugene Borowitz”) And then its editor, Joanne Palmer, who I didn’t know and who had never before published anything I had written, invited me to become a regular columnist for the paper, which I’ve been since that time — an experience that has been as meaningful and enjoyable to me as being Gene’s Sh’ma Fellow all those years ago. So in a very real sense, you and Sh’ma and Gene and Gary and Joanne are all responsible for this new important part of my life, and I thank you (and them) for that.

“Gene and Sh’ma were very special, and although both are no longer with us in one sense, they’ll always be with us in another.”

Perhaps the Jewish community no longer needs Sh’ma in the 21st century, with all its new technology and changes in modes of media and communication. But that doesn’t obviate the sadness many of us feel at the demise of a longtime cherished friend. To paraphrase Daniel Webster, Sh’ma was a small magazine — but there were those who loved it. And I am one of them.

About the Author
Joseph C. Kaplan, a regular columnist for the Jewish Standard, is the author of “A Passionate Writing Life: From ‘In my Opinion’ to ‘I’ve Been Thinking’” (available at Teaneck's Judaica House and its website). A retired lawyer and long-time resident of Teaneck with his wife Sharon, they’ve been blessed with four wonderful daughters and five delicious grandchildren.
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