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A PAPER'S TRAIL THE JEWISH TIMES AT 75

THE BALTIMORE SUN

The Baltimore Jewish Times has a reputation that is the envy of Jewish newspapers throughout the country: thorough, hard-hitting, not afraid to tackle controversial subjects and yet never forgetting that it is, at heart, a community newspaper.

As it celebrates turning 75 this year,the Times remains one feisty septuagenarian. Few of this country's Jewish newspapers are its equal. And its success can be summed up in two words:

Charles Buerger.

At 55, Mr. Buerger hardly looks the part of crusading newspaper publisher. Of average height, with graying hair and glasses, the Pittsburgh native speaks so softly that it's sometimes difficult to make out what he's saying.

But since taking over as head of the family-owned weekly publication 22 years ago, he has transformed the Times from what was essentially a community bulletin board and news wire publication to a newspaper with strong, sometimes controversial local stories that may tackle any topic -- while still printing the day-to-day information its readers have come to expect.

"Of the Anglo-Jewish newspapers that I've dealt with, the Times is clearly the best of its kind," says Arthur C. Abramson, executive director of the Baltimore Jewish Council.

"Even when I was operating in other communities," adds Mr. Abramson, who has worked with Jewish agencies in New York, Seattle, Houston and Los Angeles, "The Jewish Times was always regarded as one of the finest newspapers of its kind."

Rabbi Seymour Essrog, of the conservative Beth Shalom congregation of Carroll County, spent 31 years at Beth Israel in Randallstown. He, too, says the Times -- which is published in a magazine format -- stands head-and-shoulders above similar publications.

"Wherever I go, people always comment about the Jewish Times," he says. "I remember the old Jewish Times. . . . It had a lot of ads, but very little editorial content. It was mainly social moves of the community [births, weddings, bar mitzvahs]. I have to congratulate Chuck Buerger, because he really has developed the contents and the material."

Mr. Buerger, the grandson of founding publisher David Alter, says it didn't take a genius to do what he did upon taking over the Times in 1972. Rather, it resulted from a combination of two things: reading the writing on the wall and wanting a newspaper he could be proud of.

"I'm a major believer in, 'You fix things before they get broke,' " Mr. Buerger says from the newspaper's Charles Street offices. "I just didn't think that that kind of publication would continue to be read."

Besides, he adds, "If it had my name on it, it had to be as good as we can make it. We're not there yet, we're never going to have that perfect paper, but it's something that we're going to keep on aiming for."

(Mr. Buerger, in fact, is listed as co-publisher with his sister, Susan A. Patchen. But he handles almost all of the day-to-day operations.)

The paper kicks off its diamond anniversary celebration at 7 tonight with a concert at Oregon Ridge. The Baltimore Symphony Orchestra will perform a piece commissioned by the Times from Israeli composer Paul Schoenfield, as well as music by George Gershwin.

Seventy-five years. Not bad for a newspaper whose first publisher lived more than 200 miles away and whose early issues included pleas from Baltimore rabbis that businesses buy ads in the paper, lest it cease publication.

David Alter had trained as a civil engineer, but somewhere along the line he decided his real future was in newspapers. From his home in Pittsburgh, Mr. Alter would, in fact, start six newspapers, including the Baltimore Jewish Times and his hometown Jewish Criterion. But like many Americans, Mr. Alter was hit hard by the Depression; by its end, his publishing empire had dwindled to just those two papers.

Mr. Buerger, who was only 9 when his grandfather died in 1946, remembers little about him. "I think he was more of a businessman than a journalist," he recalls. "He came up on the ad side."

In fact, because Mr. Alter's headquarters remained in Pittsburgh and his trips to Baltimore were few, it's tough to find anyone here familiar with the man who founded the Times in 1919. But his old papers remain in bound volumes at the Times office. And an editorial in that first issue, dated Sept. 24, details the sort of newspaper he envisioned, one that would be of interest to all Jews, with no preference given to any sect or division.

"I hold no brief for any particular movement or group in American Jewry," editor C.A. Rubinstein wrote, "my sole aim being to render a service to the Jewish cause, particularly to the Jews of Baltimore."

The Jewish Times of the 1920s and 1930s chronicled the struggle of the World Zionist Movement to establish a Jewish homeland and kept a wary eye on the rise of Hitler and the Nazis in Germany. Most of the stories were written by syndicated columnists or came directly off the news wire -- the paper employed few, if any, full-time reporters.

The paper also tracked the comings and goings of Baltimore's Jewish community -- Mr. Buerger chuckles at a clip announcing someone's return from a summer stay in Pikesville -- and included book, movie and theater reviews. Such entertainers as Fannie Brice, Eddie Cantor and Edward G. Robinson were featured prominently, often in autobiographical pieces.

When Mr. Alter died in 1946, his wife, Sadie S. Alter, took over as publisher. Her tenure would include the time of the founding of Israel in 1948, an event covered in every detail by the Times.

"We were good friends," says Robert Hiller, former president of what was then called the Associated Jewish Charities and Welfare Fund, and a man who would later be instrumental in seeing that Charles Buerger was allowed to follow in his grandparents' footsteps. "She was very articulate. She spoke her mind and never hesitated to respond to an inquiry. And she knew how to make decisions."

Moses Cohen, a longtime Baltimore lawyer and authority on local Jewish history, remembers a meeting with Mrs. Alter in the 1940s, when he was an occasional columnist and book reviewer for the Times.

"I guess she was there on one of her tours," remembers Mr. Cohen, 85. "She was a little short lady. She looked to me like a [typical] American elderly grandmother."

Mrs. Alter published the Times until 1964, for most of those years in tandem with Bert F. Kline, a former sports writer from Pittsburgh who served as editor of the Times from 1950 until his death in 1972. The Times nearly doubled in both size and circulation during his tenure, according to an obituary in The Sun.

When Mrs. Alter died on Oct. 30, 1964, the job of publisher fell to her daughter, Geraldine A. Jacobson.

"She was great. She never, ever complained," Mr. Buerger says of his mother, who was slowly going deaf and blind during her later years. "She was always very, very much grateful for what she had."

"Geraldine was attractive, very nice and very well-liked," Mr. Hiller recalls. "She was not nearly the dominant business person that her mother was."

By the time Mrs. Jacobson died in 1972, ownership of the Pittsburgh newspaper her grandfather had founded had passed the local equivalent of the Associated Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore. Mr. Hiller had helped put together that deal, so when Mrs. Jacobson died, the group turned to him to set up a similar arrangement in Baltimore, where he had been living since 1965.

"I thought it looked like a good money-making enterprise without a lot of great editorial quality," Mr. Hiller says of the paper. But before he did anything, he wanted to meet the heir apparent, who was working as the vice president of a manufacturing and packaging company in New Jersey. He came away impressed.

"I told the attorney in Pittsburgh that this young man should have a chance to run this newspaper," Mr. Hiller recalls. "He had a vision."

So Charles Buerger, 33, took over the family business. And he quickly decided the first thing he had to do was enlarge the staff and turn the Times into a paper where reporters could spend their careers.

"When I started, the paper had one reporter and one managing editor," Mr. Buerger recalls. "Reporters in those days worked for the Jewish Times so they could eventually work for The Sun. We couldn't continue to exist if we were just a stepping-off point."

His most important early accomplishment? "I got a guy named Gary Rosenblatt to be editor," he says.

Gary Rosenblatt was a 27-year-old rabbi's son and occasional stringer for the New York Times when he was hired in August 1974. He would stay with the paper 19 years. While it was Mr. Buerger's vision that set a goal for the Times, it was largely Mr. Rosenblatt's journalistic know-how and understanding of the Jewish community that got the paper where it is today.

"I had decided that the ideal job for me was to combine journalism and Jewish life, so the idea of working for a Jewish newspaper was very appealing to me," says Mr. Rosenblatt, who left the Times last year to become editor-publisher of New York's Jewish Week. "Chuck was very enthusiastic about improving the paper."

He agreed with Mr. Buerger's assessment that the paper would have to print more than community notices and wire service copy if it was to survive and prosper.

"People got it and I think they read it, but I don't think they had a lot of respect for it," Mr. Rosenblatt recalls. "Somebody had said PTC that if the Messiah was to appear, the only way it would appear in the Jewish Times was if he sent in his own press release."

That soon changed. The paper hired more reporters and started relying far less on wire copy. And the clear edict from Mr. Rosenblatt -- backed up by the publisher -- was that no story was too sensitive for the paper if it was researched thoroughly and written fairly.

That idea hasn't always sat well with the paper's readers. Stories about white flight out of Randallstown, Jewish country clubs and Realtors who steered clients away from certain neighborhoods because of their race or ethnicity have stepped on toes in the Jewish community.

"You feel like you're taking the community by the hand sometimes and forcing them to look in the mirror," Mr. Rosenblatt says. "It doesn't always make you the most popular guy in town."

"People feel very strongly that we are their paper," Mr. Buerger says. "If we run a story they do not agree with, they'll say, 'Ah, from The Sun we'd expect that, but you're our friend.' "

But even those who sometimes disagree with the paper value it -- often because it is willing to tackle sometimes controversial subjects.

"Under Gary Rosenblatt, the Jewish Times reached its zenith -- investigative journalism of the highest standard," says Rabbi Ronald Z. Schwartz, of the orthodox Beth Jacob congregation. "It was combative, challenging, intellectually probing."

Some Jewish leaders wonder how the Times will weather Mr. Rosenblatt's departure. His successor, Michael Davis, a former Sun editor, has shown his own knack for controversy, by publishing, for example, an interview with Black Muslim minister Louis Farrakhan that some readers felt never should have

appeared in a Jewish newspaper. Mr. Rosenblatt was so popular for so long that he's proving a tough act to follow.

"Is it continuing to do a good a job as it has in the past? Many of my rabbinic colleagues have been raising that particular question," says Rabbi Donald Berlin, of the reform Temple Oheb Shalom. "For me, the jury is still out. I think that Michael is doing something that he has not done before. I think he is still learning. It takes a couple of years to develop your own imprint."

But people are still reading the Jewish Times -- the paper has a circulation of nearly 20,000, and surveys show about 70 percent of the Baltimore metropolitan area's Jewish population (which Mr. Burger estimates at about 95,000) reads it.

And that sits well with Mr. Davis, even if everyone doesn't agree with what is in the paper.

"My job is to make sure that the public is talking about the paper at their Friday night Sabbath meeting," he says.

The future? "Our aim is to build community Jewish-hood. . . . We need to ensure we have the next generation of readers to serve," Mr. Davis says. "I think for the baby boomers, there's a spiritual renaissance under way. We know there's a hunger out there we can serve."

So Charles Buerger prepares to guide the Jewish Times toward the century mark. He publishes Jewish newspapers in Detroit and Atlanta. He publishes Style, a bi-monthly magazine mailed to homes -- Jewish and non-Jewish -- in upscale sections of northern Baltimore and Baltimore County.

He's also brought a fourth generation into the family business: His son, Andrew, is marketing director of the Detroit Jewish News.

"It's kind of pleasing," Mr. Buerger says of his success. "In the last 75 years, many people, places and interests have come and gone. But we're still here, and we're still going."

MUSIC OF THE TIMES

What: "Rhapsody in Blue," music of George Gershwin, and "From a Bintel Brief" a piece commissioned by the Times from Paul Schoenfield, performed by the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra

When: Tonight at 7 (the park opens at 5 p.m.)

Where: Oregon Ridge Park. Exit Shawan Road west. Follow signs.

Tickets: $12 adults, $6 for children 12 and under.

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