Forty years and eight miracles later

The CJN's staff hard at work in the Toronto office, circa 2011.

This past year marked my 40-year anniversary working at The Canadian Jewish News. Over 4,000 papers later, I sit here reminiscing and wondering where the time went. How could a job that was supposed to be a short stint of a few months stretch out to a lifetime? It’s funny how life’s journey takes you on a road you never thought you’d travel.

Ella celebrates the 4000th edition of the CJN

Strangely, it all began on  a crowded street in Tel Aviv in 1978. The driver of the Egged bus I was on came to an abrupt stop, narrowed his eyes and glared in my direction. I froze. He proceeded to yell at the guy beside me who was spitting garinim, sunflower seeds, all over the bus floor. I had to laugh; What a place this was. After living in Israel for a year, the country had a hold of my soul. It was at that moment I knew where I belonged, but I needed a plan.

I would go home to Toronto, go back to school, save some money and make aliyah.

After being accepted into a tourism program at Ryerson (then a Polytechnic Institute), I had five months to work and save before school started. Sitting at my kitchen table, I scanned the classified section of the Toronto Star. The tiny word ad jumped off the page. The Canadian Jewish News was looking for a receptionist. Could it get any better than that? Growing up, The CJN arrived weekly in my mailbox. It was a familiar staple in our home. Coincidence or Miracle #1?

Armed with a resume, letters of reference and the gift of gab, I walked in for my interview and walked out with the job. I started work the following Monday, Aug. 28, 1978.

The newspaper business was exciting. There was the sound of the reporters pounding the keys on their typewriters, cigarettes smouldering in ashtrays and the telex machine spitting out messages from our Montreal office. A huge headliner machine thumped out long strips of type on developing paper which went through a waxing machine to get pasted up on broadsheet cardboard flats. We had boxes full of point-liner tape for borders, and lots of people to put it all together carrying dangerous-looking Exacto knives. The energy and intensity was infectious and I wanted to be part of it.

My dream of living in Israel faded. I didn’t need to be a travel agent.
I found a fabulous, exciting career with hands-on training and a pay cheque right here.

J.B. Salsberg making ha-Motzi before The CJN’s Hanukkah party, circa 1990

Over the years editors and employees came and went, but I was surprised how much of the staff stayed for what seemed like forever.

Despite other job offers, I became one of those people. We called ourselves “lifers”.

The CJN became more than a job, it was my second family.

We shared every stage of life; marriage, divorce, pregnancies, children, grandchildren, illness, goodbyes and death. Working with the same people for decades, you hear every detail, every vacation, and every High Holiday or Passover drama. You share wedding plans, holiday recipes, lots of vacation photos and family drama. You laugh together, rejoice in every simcha and support each other through sorrows.

We worked hard but had fun doing it.

Sometimes. But other times it was tense. You know that feeling when the blood drains out of your face and little cold sweat beads form on your forehead? It’s the feeling we got when the papers came back from the printer and we gathered around one of the desks to gawk at the horrible typo we could do nothing about, knowing the phones would soon be ringing off the hook (no email back then and yes, phones had a hook).

Some of the more memorable typos were:  “Jewish Pubic Library”, “short sleeve sh-ts”, “kosher chocolate mouses”, “Kedem rape juice”, and my all-time favourite – a classified ad to sell a cottage that was tucked away in the woods printed as f–ked away in the woods.

My advice column, “Ask Ella” was first published in 1995. Since I was dubbed the “Dear Abby” of the office anyway, Paul Lungen, a reporter and fellow “lifer”, suggested to our then-editor Mordechai Ben-Dat that I become the advice columnist in The CJN. Miracle #2.

People in the community got to know my face from the photo that ran with the column. I’ve been asked advice in the strangest places; bathroom lineups, TJFF lineups, United Bakers, the doctor’s office, Bathurst Street, parties, weddings, funerals, shivahs, – just about everywhere.

Writing Ask Ella also led me to write a Holocaust book. Miracle #3.

The book was nominated by the Ontario Library Association in their annual Forest of Reading program and today Hidden Gold is in schools across Ontario being used to teach kids of all religions and cultures about the Holocaust, about tolerance and acceptance. Miracle #4.

It was April 2013 when the rug was pulled out from our existence. Donald Carr, then president of The CJN’s board of directors, announced that we would be shutting down operations. The last paper would roll off the press in June. The print newspaper industry was hit hard and papers were shutting down everywhere. It was the end of an era. How could this happen? How could a paper that had been part of the Canadian Jewish landscape simply no longer exist?

Word traveled fast – very fast. Within the hour, the phones rang from Toronto, Montreal, other parts of Canada, Israel, and the U.S. The emails poured in from subscribers and advertisers. Our community was not letting this paper go down without a fight. Miracle #5.

Many hard decisions had to be made and our CJN family was torn apart for the greater good of keeping a Jewish voice alive for our communities. The staff was cut in half, we moved to much smaller offices, we went from Canada Post delivery to door-to-door drop off.  Elizabeth Wolfe, stepped in as president of the board, a position her father Ray Wolfe held when I first started at the paper. Ben-Dat stepped down as editor stating that it was time for a younger person to take over.

Mordechai Ben-Dat, editor, and Ella Burakowski on their last day of working together, 2013.

Yoni Goldstein came on board and changed the direction and look of the paper. It needed to speak to a younger audience if it was going to survive. With the Internet and social media taking over, news was instantaneous and free. Gone were the days when The CJN was a “news” paper. Goldstein had to address the challenges the Jewish communities of today were facing.

He needed to keep the original, loyal subscribers happy, while bringing in new, fresh ideas to engage a younger, growing, Jewish audience. The CJN needed an online presence.

Today, from the time of its inception in 1960, The CJN continues to be a major part of the Jewish landscape. Miracle #6.

There are weekly relevant features, excellent columns, editorials, controversial political stories, recipes, entertainment, an events calendar and it’s still a great place to compare prices for gefilte fish before the holidays. There’s something for everyone. It’s inspiring to see a younger staff as engaged and excited as I was when I first started.

As for the old gang, some have passed on, but their legacy and their writings live on. Some have retired and are exploring new adventures and enjoying time with grandchildren. So many of us are still friends. Facebook and Instagram have allowed us to continue to be part of every milestone of our original CJN family. We’ve never lost touch. We continue to rejoice in each other’s simchas and support each other through difficult times, and we’re still comparing brisket, turkey, kugel and dessert recipes for the High Holidays.
Miracle #7.

Ella Burakowski in 1978, her first year working at The CJN.

This year as I mark my 40th anniversary at The CJN, I’m now the operations manager and continue to write “Ask Ella.” About 20 per cent of the current staff are CJN “lifers.” I still subscribe to the paper and receive my CJN on my front porch every Wednesday morning. I love seeing it on my kitchen table. I still love my job, it makes me feel connected, exactly like it did when I was growing up, part of a vibrant, active, Jewish community. Once a family, always a family. Miracle #8.