Sh’ma ceases publication after 50 years of sharing Jewish thoughts and perspectives

media watch

Funding challenges and tech advances were behind the decision to end the publication’s run

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Sh’ma: A Journal of Jewish Ideas was laid to rest this week at the age of 50, when its sole backer, the Lippman Kanfer Foundation for Living Torah, pulled the plug on its last lifeline, having spent more than $1 million underwriting the publishing costs over the past decade. On Monday, more than half a dozen current and former editors and publishers announced that the journal would cease publication. 

Editions of Sh’ma ran anywhere from 4 to 24 pages, publishing text with no artwork or photos. The journal included perspectives from a wide range of rabbis, scholars and community thought-leaders. Each issue was themed, with topics ranging from eternal Jewish perplexities and questions to what editors determined was timely and relevant to readers.

Sh’ma was created in 1970 by Rabbi Eugene Borowitz to be “a dialogue in difference,” a place for the lively discussion of Jewish ideas. Borowitz died in 2016.

With Sh’ma’s demise comes “the end of a vital chapter in American-Jewish history,” wrote Rabbi David Ellenson in his essay in the final issue of Sh’ma. Ellenson had been Borowitz’s student at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, which Ellenson would eventually lead as its president.

Sh’ma was edited by Borowitz until 1993, when CLAL: the National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership, took the reins. In 1998, the journal was purchased for $1 by the now-shuttered Jewish Family & Life, led by Yosef Abramowitz. The Foundation for Living Torah took it over in 2009, establishing the Sh’ma Institute and creating a board of directors for the journal.

Joshua Rolnick, founding director of the Foundation for Living Torah and president of the Sh’ma Institute’s Board of Directors, spoke with Jewish Insider about the decision to shut down the journal.

Sh’ma’s commitment to pluralism was something special. The way it approached a particular theme, turning it again and again. When you picked up an issue, you didn’t necessarily know what to expect,” said Rolnick, “and there was always something I wanted to refer back to.”

It didn’t take long for its new backers to realize that the world was changing around Sh’ma, and it needed to find a new way to attract new readers. “We’ve been asking questions about the future of Sh’ma for five years,” said Rolnick, “asking can we take what matters to us into the digital age.”

The Sh’ma Institute partnered with The Forward four years ago, and it was included as an insert until The Forward ceased publishing in print and went entirely digital earlier this year.

More recently, “as a foundation we were looking for a partner to validate that Sh’ma was still valuable today. We had a number of conversations with potential funders — foundations, institutions, other media partners. None of them panned out,” Rolnick said. “A lot of people feel very fond of Sh’ma but we were never able to find someone who said yes, someone to share the budget responsibilities.”

Lippman Kanfer’s peak funding was in 2013, when it made a $275,000 grant to Sh’ma, said Rolnick. Since then, the foundation has spent between $100,000 and $150,000 a year on Sh’ma, supplementing the modest subscription revenue that the magazine brought in until it went digital-only and the sponsorship of individual issues.

Paid circulation never surpassed 5,000 copies, Abramowitz, Sh’ma’s former publisher, told JI.

When Lippman Kanfer took it over in 2009, paid print circulation was at about 3,000, Rolnick said, “and has declined steadily over the years.”

Now, “in the age of Twitter people aren’t sitting down for a deep dive on one topic in 24 pages,” Rolnick said. “It was at odds with the way people consume content today.”

The decision to end Sh’ma’s 50-year run “wasn’t strictly a dollars-and-cents decision,” Rolnick said, but a general feeling that its time had come and gone. The foundation is dedicating additional funding to creating a working archive for past issues so that the publication remains a resource in perpetuity.

Susan Berrin, Sh’ma’s editor for the past 21 years, told JI she has received more than 250 emails in the days since its death announcement.

“I heard from readers, writers and donors that it spoke to so many different types of people, that it created a conversation where people who were scholars, academics, laypeople, all different kinds of Jews could talk to each other in very thoughtful ways. Sh’ma is a record of what was important to American Jews at different moments in time – alcoholism, gun violence, immigration reform, we wrote about them decades ago, before they were on the communal agenda,” she told JI.

“We modeled a place where people who had very different attitudes could actually find a place to have a conversation.”

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