The first issue of Sh'ma, First issue, Nov. 1970, was four-page bi-weekly journal. The last issue, Nov. 2019, was a monthly publication available online as a PDF.
The first issue of Sh'ma, First issue, Nov. 1970, was four-page bi-weekly journal. The last issue, Nov. 2019, was a monthly publication available online as a PDF.

Sh’ma, storied journal of ideas, is no more

Just one year short of its 50th anniversary, Sh’ma has ended. The final issue was posted on Nov. 1.

The publication, founded by legendary liberal theologian Rabbi Eugene Borowitz in 1970, quickly became one of the nation’s top conveners of Jewish conversations. Each of its 751 issues brought together disparate thinkers — philosophers, community leaders, activists and others — around specific topics.

Fittingly, the final issue was a conversation around the phrase “Limnot Yameinu — Number our Days.”

It was one of the first Jewish publications that dealt with hot-button topics of the day, such as the Vietnam War and the New Left. “When Sh’ma began, there was nothing else like it,” Rabbi Jeffrey Salkin wrote in a recent Religion News Service eulogy for Sh’ma. “No other publication was having the deep conversations about observance, ethics, Israel and Zionism, racial politics and other issues.”

In the final issue, former president of Hebrew Union College Rabbi David Ellenson wrote that unlike other intellectual journals of the day, “[Borowitz] felt that Sh’ma should adopt a principled commitment to pluralism and always be open to diverse views on every topic — as long as these views were expressed in intelligent and respectful tones.”

Borowitz published and edited Sh’ma until 1993, when he handed it off to Clal, the National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership. There, it was edited by Rabbi Nina Beth Cardin until 1998.

Since then, it has been edited by Berkeley resident Susan Berrin, who was brought on when Israeli politician and activist Yossi Abramowitz bought Sh’ma from Clal for $1.

When Sh’ma began, there was nothing else like it.

After decades as a biweekly, Sh’ma was turned into a monthly with an increased page count by Berrin and Abramowitz.

“We also pushed the boundaries of pluralism a little more,” Berrin told J. “In addition to a political spectrum or a religious spectrum of Conservative, Orthodox, Reform, Reconstructionist, we tried to talk about how we access Judaism in different ways. We brought in more emerging writers, people who didn’t identify with Judaism in traditional ways or access Judaism through synagogues.

“It was a place for people to share a conversation with major thinkers and outsiders who weren’t in the center,” she continued. “Pretty much every single major American leader appeared at one time or another.”

Berrin believes that Sh’ma’s mission of bringing together radically different Jewish voices and viewpoints is as necessary as ever. “We live in a bifurcated, polarized America, and as Jews, we’re just as divided. So we lack the opportunity to come together in conversation,” she said.

Nevertheless, the ways in which people engage in conversations has changed. “When I first started editing Sh’ma there was no social media,” Berrin said. “And people read differently. They access info differently.”

Since 2015, Sh’ma has partnered with the Forward, appearing on the Forward’s website as an independently edited magazine and as an insert in the Forward’s print edition. When the Forward ended its print edition in April, Sh’ma’s nearly half-century print run ended as well.

The Bay Area was always well represented in Sh’ma. In recent years, Rabbi Adina Allen of Jewish Studio Project in Berkeley, activist Rabbi David Cooper of Kehilla Community Synagogue in the East Bay and Rabbi Zac Kamenetz of the JCC of San Francisco all appeared in Sh’ma. Kamenetz wrote a piece just last month headlined “I Was a Rabbinic Psychonaut: Psychedelics and the Future of Judaism.”

The publication’s advisory board, which worked with Berrin to develop each issue’s topic, also included local thought leaders such as educator Rachel Brodie and Stanford University professor Ari Y. Kelman.

In recent years, Sh’ma was funded by the Lippman Kanfer Foundation for Living Torah. It was the foundation’s decision to bring the journal to an end.

“There was an attempt to find a new home and it didn’t work out,” Berrin said. “It was a really difficult decision and we turned over a lot of stones to see if it could go otherwise.”

In a letter announcing the end of Sh’ma, published by eJewishPhilanthropy.com, Berrin closed with words from founder Borowitz — a mission statement for the publication and, perhaps, a whole way of thinking: “If we cannot have common answers, if we must live with the anxiety of alternatives, then let us at least know what the various views entail and what seem their major drawbacks.”

David A.M. Wilensky
David A.M. Wilensky

David A.M. Wilensky is the online editor of J. and "Jew in the Pew" columnist. He can be reached at david@jweekly.com.