Today print journalism is an endangered species, at best a dated indulgence. Perhaps you’ve perused a magazine or newspaper while a media-savvy millennial, tuned into a tablet or smart phone, gives you a dismissive look or makes a snarky comment about how what your reading is so yesterday.
For North Carolina’s few and scattered Jews, in the days before the internet, their sense of community was enhanced for 75 years by a locally-produced monthly magazine. Despite its title, the American Jewish Times, which began publication in Greensboro in 1936, kept its readers up to date on national and global Jewish issues and developments while also reporting state and local news. Its reach extended to South Carolina and southern Virginia, but it mostly served its home state. Local community members from Wilmington to Hendersonville reported on who got married or who was the new Sisterhood president, who celebrated a special birthday or who observed a golden anniversary, who just gave birth or who just underwent surgery, or who had out-of-town relatives coming for a visit or who traveled out of state. For all to see was a photo of newlyweds in Weldon or news of the Sisterhood bazaar in Durham.
Native Jewish North Carolinians recall nostalgically the days when the state’s Jewish community felt like an extended family. (In fact, through intramarriage and family chain migration, Jews across communities were often somehow related.) The American Jewish Times served a communal function in bonding the state’s Jews who knew each other as bunkmates at summer camps, fraternity brothers and sorority sisters, Hadassah activists, attendees of B’nai B’rith Institutes, or participants of the NC Association of Jewish Women and its men and youth auxiliaries.
On its opening page, the magazine included the statement, “The American Jewish Times is owned and edited solely as an independent enterprise and is not a Jewish community undertaking.” It was financed by subscription, fifteen cents a copy, and by heavy advertising, and not only from Jewish businesses. Textile mills advertised as well as dairies and gas stations, hotels, and department stores. Its first editor was Rabbi Fred Rypins of Greensboro’s Reform Temple Emanuel. Rabbi Rypins was a civic as well as a Jewish leader. In 1938 he became perhaps the first rabbi in America to head a municipal ministerial association. The associate editor Rabbi William Greenburg, a graduate of the Conservative Jewish Theological Seminary, had arrived in 1932 as Charlotte’s “first modern English-speaking rabbi.”
The timing was fortuitous. The 1930s were fraught years for Jewry as the European situation deteriorated and domestic anti-Semitic voices grew louder. The founding of the American Jewish Times was but one effort to unify the community and to advocate for Jewish defense. After Kristallnacht North Carolina Jewry followed national leadership in creating a statewide United Jewish Appeal and organizing local federations. Synagogues reported burgeoning membership, and by 1937 North Carolina could count 12 Hadassah chapters, four sections of the National Council of Jewish Women, and ten Sisterhoods. That the title was American Jewish Times, rather than a more accurate Carolina or Southeastern Jewish Times, asserts patriotism at a time when the loyalty of Jews as Americans was questioned. The magazine became closely associated with its longtime editor Chester Brown, who took over in 1943. That year he declared “unity is central to our religious survival” and urged Jews to “speak with one voice.”
As social history the AJT is an invaluable resource. Rabbis, both local and global, commented on the great issues affecting world Jewry. As early as September, 1942, Rabbi Frank Rosenthal of Wilmington, a German émigre, was warning that “hundreds of thousands of Jews have been ruthlessly murdered” and “atrocities never before known in the history of mankind have been committed.” At a 1943 B’nai B’rith state meeting in Charlotte, Colonel Ralph Steinberg confronted the mayor, warning of domestic anti-Semitism: “I am sorry to say that we Jews are no safer in this country than abroad.” Annual gubernatorial proclamations from governors Hoey or Broughton on the Jewish New Year were expressions of goodwill. From the Jewish wire services the AJT reprinted statements from Zionist leaders like Judah Magnes and Trude Weiss-Rosmarin while community news reported a Greensboro Hadassah donor luncheon talk by a local Presbyterian minister on his visit to Israel.
In 1950 the AJT merged with the Southern Jewish Outlook, published in Richmond, under the title American Jewish Times-Outlook. By 1966 the Blumenthal family undertook sponsorship and moved it to Charlotte, with community benefactors I. D. and later his brother Herman Blumenthal first serving as publishers before turning it over to their Foundation. The AJTO served as a mouthpiece for the Blumenthal Jewish Home for the Aged which had opened in Clemmons in 1962. A growing and dispersed North Carolina Jewry lost that “sense of oneness,” as old-timer Sam Margolis of Durham recalled, and in 2001 the AJTO ceased publication.
Nearly complete, bound print copies can be found at the North Carolina Collection in Wilson Library at UNC-Chapel Hill and at the J. Murrey Atkins Library at UNC-Charlotte. Selected issues are available online through these libraries.
Today, Jewish Heritage North Carolina is following the crowd in abandoning hard copy for digital social media to keep us all informed and connected, filling the empty space left by the AJT. We invite local community members to contribute their own reports of events and issues to once again connect us as extended family.