The Sentinel, a weekly paper for the Chicago Jewish community, was one of the longest continuously published Jewish weeklies in the United States. Little is known about the founder, editor and longtime publisher Louis S. Berlin (1884-1964) and even less about co-founder Abraham L. Weber. Berlin graduated from the University of Chicago where he was involved with a student paper, the Daily Moroon. When the first issue of the Sentinel was published on February 4, 1911, it joined several daily Yiddish papers, among them the Daily Jewish Courier, and the widely respected English-language Reform Advocate, edited by the illustrious rabbi of Chicago Sinai Congregation, Emil Gustav Hirsch (1851-1923).
Hirsch had launched the Reform Advocate in 1891. “His” weekly sidelined an older English-language community paper, the Weekly Occident, which ceased publication in 1895. By 1911 the Reform Advocate (which would last until 1947) had lost the momentum of its earlier years. Hirsch was less involved than in the 1890s, and the Advocate focused more on theological and national issues than on local Jewish life, largely ignoring the large majority of Chicago’s Jews who did not identify with the Reform movement. In 1880 about 10,000 Jews had lived in Chicago. By 1920 immigrants from Eastern Europe and their American-born children had boosted the city’s Jewish population to 300,000, more than in any other city except New York (Philadelphia and Warsaw also were home to about 300,000 Jews in 1920).
The Sentinel clearly filled a gap. The early editions betray Louis Berlin’s keen sense for popular topics that interested male and female readers. Berlin focused on cultural entertainments, printing many attractive illustrations and photographs. The Sentinel also published short stories, some serialized, and captivating reportage-style articles, thus appealing to a bigger readership than the highbrow Reform Advocate. In its first years the paper covered primarily events in the small community of established Jews. The Sentinel provided a platform for talented Reform rabbis who stood in Emil G. Hirsch’s shadow. Among the longtime editorial writers were Abraham Hirschberg (1876-1950, Temple Sholom), Samuel Felix Mendelsohn (1889-1953, Temple Beth Israel) and Tobias Schanfarber (1863-1942, KAM Congregation), all three graduates of Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati.
The Sentinel differed from many other English-language Jewish weeklies that were edited by Reform rabbis because it reached out to immigrant Jews who were reading English. As the (Yiddish) Daily Jewish Courier put it poignantly in its March 23, 1914 issue: “When opening this periodical, with the usual yawn … we become intensely interested in it. We immediately notice that the Sentinel is somewhat different from all other Anglo-Jewish weekly journals. … its editorials do not only correspond with but are rather diametrically opposed to the views of the editor. In this respect, the Sentinel is almost like the daily Jewish [Yiddish] newspapers. The editor of the Sentinel is Rabbi Abraham Hirschberg, a Jew who ‘believes’ that every Jew who is a Zionist ought to be deported from America. Yet the Sentinel is adorned with the Star of David and its associate editors are constantly disseminating the principles of Zionism.”
The Sentinel’s support of Zionism partly explains why the paper appealed to more recent Jewish immigrants who were moving into the lower middle class. As an inclusive English-language weekly that appealed to a wide Jewish readership the Sentinel was better positioned than often partisan Yiddish publications that were competing for a gradually declining readership during the years of the Great Depression. The Sentinel retained its innovative touch, attracting many talented young writers, among them novelist and playwright Edna Ferber. In 1945 the paper printed some of the earliest reports from the liberation of German concentration camps. Among the regular editorial writers during the 1940s were A. A. Freedlander and G. George Fox (1884-1960), the co-founder and longtime rabbi of South Shore Temple.
In 1943 Jack Fishbein (1913-1996) became a co-owner and editor of the Sentinel, taking full control in 1951. Fishbein was a Chicago native who graduated with a business and journalism degree from Northwestern University and had worked for the Sentinel since 1936. Throughout his tenure as publisher and editor Fishbein took a clear, often provocative stand on many issues, earning the name “conscience of the Jewish community” (Irving Cutler). The paper confronted difficult issues such as intermarriage and assimilation. Soon after Fishbein’s death the paper published its last issue on December 26, 1996.
The Sentinel is a treasure trove for social, cultural and religious historians interested in American Jewish life outside of New York during the twentieth century.