A Paper's Trail The Jewish Times At 75

July 31, 1994|By Chris Kaltenbach | Chris Kaltenbach,Sun Staff Writer

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.

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