Looking back 45 years at earliest days with the Jewish Light

The 1969 announcement of Cohn’s hiring as editor. 

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

This year marks the 45th anniversary of my association with the St. Louis Jewish Light. After graduating from law school at Washington U., I served as the staff attorney, speechwriter and press secretary to the late St. Louis County Supervisor Lawrence K. Roos.

During my time with the county, my college fraternity brother (and future Jewish Light Board President) Michael Newmark asked if I would consider becoming editor of the Light.  I was not really eager to pursue the editorship at first, but after being urged to do so by the likes of such Jewish community giants as Alfred Fleishman, Melvin Dubinsky, Morris Pearlmutter and Michael’s father, Melvin Newmark, I agreed to accept the job for “a couple of years” as a stepping stone into practicing law or joining the Fleishman-Hillard public relations firm.

Those couple of years began with the issue of June 18, 1969. My predecessor, Geoffrey Fisher, had accepted the editorship of the San Francisco Jewish Bulletin. Looking back at my first issue, there were three editorials: one hailing the success of the annual Jewish Federation Campaign for raising a record $3.5 million; a second about local Jewish merchants being harassed by a group of self-styled neo-Nazis who targeted a popular book store in St. Louis, and the reported arrests of two suspects by the St. Louis Police Department; and the third being one of very few editorials in my 45 years at the Light that was signed.  

“I will exercise the rare journalistic privilege of writing in the first person, and signing an editorial,” I wrote. “The editorship of a newspaper which purports to represent a dynamic and diverse Jewish community of 60,000 is indeed an awesome responsibility.  I promise that at all times I will do my utmost to live up to the faith which the board has placed in my abilities.”

I must admit now that during my early days as editor, I was not quite sure of what I was getting myself into. 

The very next issue had a Page One story about a petition arriving at the United Nations protesting Soviet bias against its Jews. The growing Soviet Jewry movement was in its infancy and would eventually morph into the 250,000-person March on Washington and the opening of the immigration Iron Curtain to allow over a million Jews to emigrate from the U.S.S.R. to Israel and the United States. The huge influx of Jews from the Soviet Union bolstered Israel’s Jewish population and paved the way for Israel to take greater risks for peace.

Within the first full month of my editorship, there were two major events, one of them literally cosmic: “Man Walks on the Moon.” The other, figuratively cosmic from a cultural point of view:  the Woodstock Music Festival in Bethel, N.Y.

An editorial in the July 30, 1969 issue was headlined, “One Small Step…” and began with the traditional Jewish prayer, “Blessed is He who renews the months, who by His words created the heavens.’”  The editorial noted, “The courage of the astronauts, and the almost uncanny perfection of their mission was indeed, as Neil Armstrong put it, ‘One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.’ ”  The editorial added, “The same kind of raw courage and boldness will be needed to eliminate hunger, to rebuild our cities, to purify our atmosphere, to cure disease and to achieve peace in places like the Middle East, Vietnam and Nigeria.  Let us take that next giant leap for mankind.”

Two months later, in a Jewish New Year editorial for 5730, the Light took note of the widely reported “unrest and restlessness” of increasing segments of Jewish and other American youth:  

“It has been fashionable until now to brush these facts aside with the statement that only a ‘tiny minority’ of our young people are involved” in student unrest and rebellion against the Establishment. But the appearance of an estimated 300,000 youngsters at the Woodstock Festival, and similar gatherings recently brought home the point we have chosen to ignore: a whole new life style is emerging in America which could either mean that we are on the verge of total moral collapse or that we are on the threshold of a spiritual renewal.”

Who would have thought that the first human visit to the surface of the moon, and the unprecedented countercultural explosion symbolized by Woodstock would seem so long ago?  

I must admit that back in those early days of my association with the Light, I sometimes thought, “Here we are in a world in which ‘Man Walks on the Moon’ and people not much younger than me are enjoying sex, dope and rock ’n’ roll at places like Woodstock, while I am toiling away in a tiny office working for a small Midwestern Jewish newspaper like a Jewish version of Clark Kent.”

Looking back, not only do I have no regrets, but I am truly grateful for all my years at the Light in the past, the present and into the future.  It has never been boring and there are always new challenges on the horizon.