Jewish Light’s early professional staff started with core trio

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

BY ROBERT A. COHN, Editor-in-Chief Emeritus

In the first Cohnipedia columns of 2013, the 50th anniversary of the St. Louis Jewish Light as an autonomous newspaper with its own independent Board of Trustees has been explored through the significant accomplishments of its lay leaders. Volunteers like Morris Pearlmutter, Alfred Fleishman, Sam Krupnick, Phyllis Hausfater and Bernard Fischlowitz, among others, were indeed responsible for the major structural change that transformed the old St. Louis Light, a house organ of the Jewish Federation into the St. Louis Jewish Light.

As significant as the hard work of the lay volunteers was, the publication also was blessed at its beginning with a wonderful team of full time staff, including General Manager Morris Silverman and Editor Geoffrey Fisher, with the able assistance of Richard Roberts, an energetic writer and assistant editor. All three of these great newspaper people have passed away, but their legacy of journalistic integrity and risk-taking editorial content lives on—to this very day.

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In the very first edition of the Jewish Light, Fisher’s editorial was headlined, “The Birth of a Newspaper,” in which he stated: “With this issue, the St. Louis Jewish Light is born. At the same time, we bid a respectful and nostalgic adieu to its predecessor, the St. Louis Light, which served exclusively as the spokesman of the Jewish Federation and its constituent agencies.

The primary function of the St. Louis Jewish Light will be to serve as a medium of news and forum of opinion for the entire community of St. Louis. Readers are invited to express opinions in our Letters to the Editor column.

Besides the basic functions of presenting the news, vital statistics and features, this publication will from the outset devote its energies to public service. We want to become a friend of the family.”

Thus in the very first editorial in the newly autonomous publication, Fisher, an old-school journalist who had been on the sports staff of the Cleveland News, set forth enduring principles that have held fast through the years all the way up to and including 2013. Silverman, as general manager, who also had an extensive background with local newspapers and printing, did a prodigious amount of work on all aspects of the publication until his untimely death of a heart attack at the Jewish Community Center in 1970.

Fisher and Silverman, who had been in charge of the predecessor St. Louis Light when it was published directly by the Jewish Federation, were wisely tapped to helm the St. Louis Jewish Light when it was launched with its April 3, 1963 edition. Rich Roberts, who was from a St. Louis University Catholic background, brought exceptional writing talent to the new publication. His first “look-back” feature headlined “The Day Religion Went on Trial” recalled the historic public debate between the famed attorney Clarence Darrow and the charismatic Rabbi Ferdinand M. Isserman of Temple Israel, which took place on Jan. 22, 1933 (just eight days before Adolf Hitler was named Chancellor of Germany!) at the old Young Men’s Hebrew Association (predecessor to the Jewish Community Center), 724 N. Union Boulevard. 

In their debate, Rabbi Isserman embraced a belief in the theory of evolution which he said “is evident” in religion and not contradictory of religion. Darrow countered by saying it is impossible to be happy in this world and that his philosophy (as an agnostic) was “a conviction that learning life isn’t worth living is a prerequisite for living pleasantly.”

In addition to the thought-provoking look-back at a truly historic debate between two towering figures in law and religion, the first edition of the Jewish Light included a humorous cartoon, “Dayenu,” by Henry Leonard, international JTA stories about German scientists working for Egypt and the then-positive ties between Israel and Turkey. 

Fisher was to leave the Jewish Light in 1969, when he took the job of editor of the San Francisco Jewish Bulletin. His journalistic skills, honed at a respected daily, along with Silverman’s eclectic newspapering skills and Roberts’s high energy reporting, together with the strong lay leaders of the St. Louis Jewish Light, provided a solid foundation on which to build for the next 50 years—and beyond.