For 50 years, Sh’ma was a journal that asked questions and promoted discussion about Judaism and the Jewish world, exploring ideas that challenged conventional, mainstream Jewish thinking. When it was announced last week that the next issue of the publication — which migrated in recent years from print to the web — will be its last, it prompted the continuation of an important conversation about the marketplace of ideas and thought within the Jewish community.
The journal’s backers at the Lippman Kanfer Foundation for Living Torah explained their decision to pull the plug this way: “At the foundation, we asked ourselves whether our support for the journal was commensurate with our spending: Was the journal reaching enough readers — or enough thought leaders — to have the kind of impact on the communal discourse we sought to have? We have tried to meet the challenges of a changing readership, most recently partnering with The Forward, in the hopes of increasing distribution. Unfortunately, despite investing significant resources and effort, Sh’ma struggled to transcend its original print format and attract new readers in today’s digital world.”
That very frank assessment tells you much of what you need to know about the state of journalism generally, and the delicate state of Jewish journalism in particular. It also recognizes that journals of ideas tend to reach a small audience, are financially fragile, and are more akin to a labor of love than they are to a business.
Sh’ma was launched in 1970 by theologian and educator Rabbi Eugene B. Borowitz. True to its time, it reflected the generational change in Jewish life brought on by baby boomers — a rising population of post-immigration, post-Yiddish Jews. It marked the intellectual rise of the liberal Jewish center, an open, multi-denominational approach that brought together Jewish thinkers from across the religious spectrum for thoughtful, pluralistic conversations that were of particular interest to an expanding and intellectually curious post-World War II Jewish community. It had a good run.
But now we are experiencing the next new Jewish wave — a post-print generation dominated by young Jews who don’t subscribe to a particular Jewish movement or institution, many of whom have one Jewish parent, and who are struggling with a new set of issues. They will undoubtedly create their own publications, their own labors of love, to debate the questions of their age.
“Perhaps [Sh’ma’s] ending serves as a metaphor not for American Jewish failure, but for American Jewish success,” said Rabbi Jeffrey Salkin, senior rabbi of Temple Solel in Hollywood, Florida. “It lasted as long as it could have, and as long as it should have. It did not die until it had spawned intellectual and spiritual children and grandchildren.”
We look forward to the growth of new and exciting outlets for the continuing exchange of Jewish thought and wisdom, and are thankful for the 50 years of inspiration from Sh’ma and its contributors.