10 years of helping to connect the community
Just before Passover in 1996, Jews across the Miami Valley opened their mailboxes to find a new community newspaper. Its aim was to connect a geographically dispersed and religiously diverse Jewish population. Ten years later, with numerous state and national awards to its name, The Dayton Jewish Observer now celebrates its 10th anniversary.
Ellen Faust was there when The Observer was just an idea among staff and lay leaders of the Jewish Federation of Greater Dayton in 1995. She says that the existing Jewish newspaper, the Jewish Chronicle, was failing to serve the needs of the community.
“The time had come to make the commitment to it (a Jewish newspaper) and link the entire community through a vehicle,” says Faust, first chair of the Federation’s Newspaper Committee.
The aim was to go beyond lifecycle announcements, obituaries and press releases.
“We wanted to build a new model for our Jewish community publication, to meet the needs of people across the spectrum of Jewish life,” says Observer Editor and Publisher Marshall Weiss. “We wanted to reach out to less-involved Jews on their terms, but also provide high-level analysis of the Jewish world and news in order to keep the most active participants in Jewish life interested and involved. We focused on providing news and information relating to the three key aspects of Jewish life: religion, culture, and society.”
“There was an attitude on the part of the Federation that they wanted this to be more than a mouthpiece,” says Dr. Marc Sternberg, who served as Observer Policy Committee chair from 1999-2005. “They knew they wanted it to be a quality publication because they knew that if you have a reputation for being special — which The Observer is — (the community is) much more likely to read it.”
Faust says the committee set up a structure of editorial independence, and the Federation committed to a partial allocation; last year, this funding amounted to 17 percent of the paper’s budget, with 68 percent from ad revenue and 15 percent from voluntary subscriptions.
The policy committee hired Weiss in January 1996. He was given three months to set up the newspaper, find freelance writers and formulate sections and columns. The most exciting part of the job, Weiss says, was “the opportunity to start something from nothing, from the ground up.”
After only three years of publishing, The Observer won its first national award — First Place for Excellence in Illustrating — from the American Jewish Press Association. Since then, its has won six more national awards from AJPA, and two first-place awards from the Ohio Society of Professional Journalists.
It felt good, Weiss says, for this young, small newspaper to go up “against the big guys” and win.
Weiss credits the policy committee and Federation leadership with continuing to back the paper and its standards of journalism.
“The Observer is a public trust; the Federation is entrusted to safeguard the integrity of the Jewish community’s newspaper,” he says.
At times, that has meant publishing stories on topics sensitive to community organizations, including the Federation, such as the Federation’s previous financial difficulties and the sale of the Jesse Philips Building in Trotwood.
The policy committee, now chaired by Larry Klaben, has continued to be a sounding board for stories and an ally supporting the publication.
Klaben and his wife, Marilyn, have taken up additional roles chairing a 10th anniversary gala dinner to establish an endowment for The Observer; Faust is also helping with the gala. The event begins at 5:30 p.m. on Sunday, May 21, at the Boonshoft CJCE in Centerville. Following dinner, Fiddler on the Roof lyricist Sheldon Harnick will talk about Broadway’s golden age and members of the Human Race Theatre Company will perform his most popular works.
The Observer is the only department of the Federation without the safeguard of its own endowment. Four seasons ago, when the economy took a downturn, so did The Observer’s ad sales.
“With that, the page count went down for more than a year and the scope of our coverage along with it,” Weiss says.
“An investment in The Observer is an investment in the community and in the future of Jewish identity in the area,” Sternberg says.
Smallest things important in Dayton
A native of Philadelphia with a master’s degree in journalism from Temple University, Weiss came from an environment where, to feel part of the Jewish community, all you had to do was walk out your front door and stroll down your neighborhood street.
In Dayton, things are now a bit different. But that means community is all the more important, he says.
“In the Miami Valley, to be part of the Jewish community, you have to choose to participate,” he says. “You must make the choice to connect. I hope we play a role in making these connections happen.”
He said the smallest things are much more important in Dayton. For example, Jewish parents here have a tradition of submitting detailed Bar and Bat Mitzvah announcements to the paper. In larger communities, the announcements are brief. Here, parents have space to tell something special about the Bar or Bat Mitzvah child, such as hobbies; they place these announcements before the event, a kind of open invitation for the entire community to join in the celebration.
While The Observer is mailed to all local Jewish households on the Federation’s mailing list, it also has a subscriber base among those who have moved out of state; it is also read by non-Jewish Daytonians who pick it up at stores and libraries in the area. In this way, the paper has been a vehicle for the Jewish community to tell its story to its neighbors.
Marilyn Shannon first became interested in the local Jewish community as director of the Dayton Stories Project. Soon after meeting Weiss, Shannon — a member of First Lutheran Church downtown — began subscribing to the paper.
In each issue, she finds a story she would’nt have learned about otherwise. She believes the lessons found in Judaism and other religions — making conscious choices to be a better person — are universal.
“With The Observer, I get more depth on things that are important to me: diversity, tolerance and learning more about a community that I didn’t know much about,” says Shannon, now senior program officer at the Dayton Foundation.
Weiss says he listens closely to the needs of his readers through The Observer’s annual survey. On this “report card,” he says The Observer usually earns an A- or B+.
“It opens a window to items of interest to me as a Jew,” writes one reader. “It makes me feel like an insider, not as an outsider of the community because it tells about all the events in the Jewish community without bias.”
In the words of another reader, “The Jewish Observer is the cement of the Dayton Jewish community life. Without it, we would all feel very isolated. It makes one proud to be part of the Jewish community.”
Weiss says he’ll keep working to achieve what he calls the right balance in The Observer: between what people want to read and material that he believes is important for them to read.
“There’s always room for us to improve,” he says. “We’re here to give people the information they need to go out and repair the world.”