Forceful personality made Jewish Light autonomous

Robert A. Cohn, Editor-in-Chief Emeritus of the St. Louis Jewish Light

By Robert A. Cohn, Editor-in-Chief Emeritus

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the St. Louis Jewish Light as an independent, non-profit entity with its own board of trustees.  This milestone will be celebrated with months of features in the publication and online, leading up to the Light Golden Gala Oct. 6 at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel.

As part of the celebration, most of the Cohnipedia columns over the months leading up to the Golden Gala will focus on various aspects of the history and growth of the Jewish Light from its modest beginnings back in February 1947 as a house organ and campaign vehicle for the Jewish Federation of St. Louis to an autonomous publication that has garnered local, national and even international prestige and respect.

Just how did the Light switch from a Federation-run paper to an independent one? According to nearly all of the people who were “present at the creation,” credit goes to the late Morris Pearlmutter, who is listed to this very day as the founder of the Light in its masthead (the listing of Jewish Light board members, staff and contributors that runs each week in on the first page of our Opinions section). Pearlmutter, who died in Aug. 1993 at the age of 79, was the longtime vice president for advertising and public relations at Edison Brothers Stores, Inc.  In 1962, he was chairman of the Public Relations Committee of the Jewish Federation of St. Louis. Serving with Pearlmutter on that committee was a virtual “Manhattan Project” of key members of the Jewish community in the areas of journalism, advertising, public relations and community service. Among them were: Alfred Fleishman, founding partner of the public relations firm of Fleishman-Hillard, who would later be elected Honorary President of the Light; Sam Krupnick of Krupnick & Associates Advertising; Harold Hartogensis, another public relations executive; Selwyn Pepper of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, and Phyllis Hausfater, community volunteer.  Staff assistance was provided by Herman Kaplow, Federation executive director and Geoffrey Fisher, Federation public relations director. His duties included being editor of what was then called the St. Louis Light.

In a 1993 interview, the late Alfred Fleishman told me, “The St. Louis Jewish Light was born in Morrie Pearlmutter’s living room on Godwin Lane in Ladue.  It was Morris Pearlmutter more than any single individual who brought about the transformation of the old Federation house organ called the St. Louis Light into a full, independent Jewish community newspaper with its own autonomous board of trustees.  Without his intellect, backbone and tenacity, there is no way that the Jewish Light could have achieved such status.”

Under Pearlmutter’s leadership, the Federation’s P.R. committee reviewed the history of the St. Louis Light, from its first issue on Feb. 29, 1947 through 1962.  The first editor of the original Light was Bernard Schram, who was followed by Harris Rossen, Charles Klotzer, Irving Litvag, and starting in 1961, Geoffrey Fisher, who had been with a daily newspaper, the Cleveland News before moving to St. Louis.  They also took a look at the Missouri Jewish Post & Opinion, the local edition of the National Jewish Post, which was based in Indianapolis.

Pearlmutter’s committee felt that the old Light structure was no longer adequate to cover the vast array of Jewish news on the local, national and global levels, and that acquiring or contracting with the Jewish Post & Opinion would sacrifice local control. Pearlmutter traveled to other Jewish communities, including Pittsburgh and Philadelphia, which had gone through similar transformations of Federation-controlled Jewish papers into autonomous publications.

In Philadelphia, Pearlmutter was impressed with the success of the Jewish Exponent, which developed autonomy while still retaining a positive linkage with the Federation.  A similar success had been achieved with the Pittsburgh Jewish Chronicle.

Recalled Fleishman:  “We met for hours on end in Pearlmutter’s living room, debating the pros and cons of establishing our own community newspaper with an autonomous board.  We stayed until Morrie’s wife Stella, told us that the hour was past the point of no return.  But Pearlmutter pressed on until he achieved a consensus among that very diverse and strong-willed group of independent communications people.  Considering the clash of strong wills, it was no easy task — but Pearlmutter was more than equal to it.”

The committee unanimously approved Pearlmutter’s recommendation to set up an autonomous board of trustees to govern the affairs of the newspaper, and to change the name to the St. Louis Jewish Light to “more clearly and proudly proclaim its mission,” said Pearlmutter at the time.

The Federation board, with only one dissenting vote, adopted the recommendations, and the first issue of the St. Louis Jewish Light appeared on April 3, 1963, with the late Geoffrey Fisher serving as editor and the late Morris Silverman, as general manager. Fisher served as editor until 1969, when he accepted the editorship of the San Francisco Jewish Bulletin.  He was succeeded as editor by this writer on July 1, 1969.  Silverman, who served with great distinction as general manager, died suddenly in 1970, after I became editor-in-chief.

And the rest, as they say, is “history,” about which more will be shared in future Cohnipedia columns.