Jewish Times publisher Charles Buerger, 58, dies He transformed modest weekly into leader in its field

November 09, 1996|By Will Englund | Will Englund,SUN STAFF

Charles A. Buerger, who transformed the Baltimore Jewish Times from an unambitious community newsletter into a publication that many consider the premier Jewish newspaper in America, died yesterday at Johns Hopkins Hospital after heart surgery. He was 58.

Mr. Buerger, unpretentious and soft-spoken, yet hard-driving, had a keen eye for talent and a penchant for spending money to make money.

Having established the prominence of the Baltimore Jewish Times in the 1980s, he began to widen his interests in the 1990s. His company bought or established Jewish newspapers in Florida, Atlanta, Detroit and Vancouver, British Columbia, and launched a secular magazine called Style.

"He really professionalized the field of Jewish journalism," said Gary Rosenblatt, who was hired by Mr. Buerger as editor of the Jewish Times and spent 19 years in the post. "He treated it like a serious magazine, which hadn't been done before. You had all these mom-and-pop operations in Jewish journalism. He wanted make it something he could be proud of."

The Baltimore Jewish Times was founded in 1919 by Mr. Buerger's grandfather, David Alter. Over the years, it had been published by his grandmother and mother and featured bar mitzvah notices, weddings, reviews and the comings and goings of Baltimore's Jewish community. When he took over the paper in 1972, Mr. Buerger quickly went about changing its tone. His background was in printing; he said later he didn't know what he wasn't supposed to do as a publisher.

He hired Mr. Rosenblatt, 26 at the time, and together the two men redefined the purview of a local Jewish publication. They featured coverage of the diplomatic efforts to halt the Yom Kippur War in 1973; published articles on spouse abuse, alcoholism, racial flight and education in the Jewish community; ran an examination of the fund-raising efforts of the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles that was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in 1984; and once printed a cover story on the Dalai Lama, hardly a central figure in Baltimore Jewish life.

Mr. Rosenblatt, who left in 1993 to become editor of Jewish Week in New York, was always the dedicated, thoughtful journalist, deeply familiar with Judaism and Jewish culture. Mr. Buerger was the businessman who knew that he wanted an excellent publication.

"Chuck was fun," said Kim Muller-Thym, who worked at the Times for 20 years. "He liked to work hard and party hard, and he expected the same of his employees. Having an editor like Gary Rosenblatt kept the principles in place."

Mr. Buerger liked classical music and served on the board of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra. He didn't like neckties and drove around in a "cheap car," said Rabbi Mark Loeb of Beth El Congregation.

"He was an iconoclastic personality," said Rabbi Loeb. "He could suddenly come off with some totally mercurial idea. He was always sparking with thoughts."

The Times had a tradition of not associating itself with any particular segment of the Jewish community; Mr. Buerger built on that tradition of independence. This set the paper apart from the many publications that are run by various Jewish foundations or organizations.

"When a paper is a house organ, there's no independence, there's no muckraking, and all you get is the party line," said Rabbi Loeb.

"At times it would have been easier to have a house organ," said Darrell Friedman, president of The Associated: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore. "But I always felt the objectivity and independence was important. It was the kind of tension that in a democracy plays such an important role."

Arthur Magida, a senior editor for 13 years, described Mr. Buerger as "a very interesting, pragmatic yet idealistic personality -- contradictory sometimes. He was torn between his impulses and instincts as a businessman, and his impulses and instincts to have the best Jewish publication in the country."

In the last several years, circulation of the Jewish Times has been sliding from its peak of about 22,000. Some critics have worried that Mr. Buerger was spending too much time on his other publications. But overall the company has been prospering.

"He has a golden gut for what works and a brilliant eye for talent," said Michael Davis, current editor of the Times.

Mr. Buerger, who lived in Owings Mills, was active in efforts to fight hunger.

Just this week, he was asked by Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend to chair the board of Civic Works, a job-skill and community-service organization in Baltimore. "He made a real effort to improve the life of the city," she said yesterday. "He cares about the community, and he cares about getting things done."

He was also on the boards of the Baltimore Museum of Art and The Associated: Jewish Community Federation.

Born in Pittsburgh, he was a 1960 graduate of Carnegie Mellon University.

He is survived by his wife of 29 years, the former Ronnie L. Uslan; three daughters, Jodi A. Buerger of Medfield, Mass., Danielle A. Bunting, of Phoenix, Md., and Lauren A. Buerger of Owings Mills; and two sons, Andrew A. Buerger of Vancouver and Kevin A. Buerger of Los Angeles.

Services will be at 11 a.m. tomorrow at Sol Levinson funeral establishment, 8900 Reisterstown Road.

Pub Date: 11/09/96

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