The Ledger’s Founding Father
The story of the Connecticut Jewish Ledger begins in 1929 with the newspaper’s founder, the late Samuel Neusner, who was at the helm of the paper until his retirement in 1954.
Neusner co-founded the Ledger with Rabbi Abraham Feldman of Congregation Beth Israel in West Hartford. While Feldman, who died in 1970, limited his role to writing editorials, Neusner was charged with the day-to-day operation of the paper.
The story of Samuel Neusner is an old-fashioned tale of an immigrant achieving the American dream. Born in Eastern Europe in Koretz, a town that is now in the Ukraine, Neusner immigrated to Beverly, Mass. with his parents at the age of 10. He attended school for only four years before leaving to work as a machinist at the United Shoe Machinery factory. Neusner joined the Army Air Corps at the outbreak of World War I and was stationed in Fort Worth Texas where he continued to live after the war until – as the family legend goes – his mother took a train to Texas and dragged him home.
Despite his lack of formal education, Neusner began to work for the Boston Jewish Advocate in 1924, where he quickly mastered the journalism trade and was appointed by Jewish Advocate editors Joseph and Alexander Brin to build a Western Massachusetts edition of the paper. When the Brins decided to launch a Western Massachusetts edition of his paper, Neusner moved to Springfield’s North End with his wife Lee and growing family to head up the new venture.
In 1929, Sam Neusner struck up a partnership with Feldman and the two bought out the Western Mass. publication. Feldman was instrumental in securing the advertising revenue that enabled the paper to expand its coverage and circulation to Connecticut. And the Jewish Ledger was born.
At first, Neusner continued to live in Springfield with his wife, Lee, and their three children, Jacob, Fred and Sandra, where he managed the day-to-day operations of the Ledger through its Hartford and Springfield offices. In 1937, he decided to follow the immigration patterns of the Jewish community in Western Mass. and moved from the dense urban North End neighborhood in Springfield to a suburban area. Not long thereafter, he closed the Ledger’s Springfield office, relocated his family to West Hartford and made the Hartford office the center of the Jewish Ledger’s operations. He was so thoroughly committed to the success and longevity of the paper that when sales and revenue diminished during World War II he returned to work as a machinist to ensure the Jewish Ledger’s survival. The Connecticut and Massachusetts papers not only survived – after World War II, they thrived.
The Jewish Ledger was a family affair for Neusner. He raised his sons alongside him at the paper in the hopes that they would continue the family business.
In 2009, Jacob Neusner, a Bard College professor of Jewish history and theology, shared some reflections about his father’s career.
“I celebrated my bar mitzvah in 1945 and began working at the Ledger the following month,” Jacob said. “From 1945 onward that is where I lived. I didn’t know that there was a world beyond the Ledger. I never knew his inner observance but he gave us so much. I had all these tutors teaching me their craft. It was a very rare opportunity. I didn’t appreciate it at the time but he wanted the labor he had undertaken to continue.”
Neusner’s sons used their experience to pursue their own careers – Jacob, a scholar, and Fred, who died in February 2014, a Federal judge.
In 1954, health issues forced Neusner to retire, leaving the responsibilities of publisher to his wife. He died in 1960. In 1967, Lee Neusner sold the paper to its managing editor, Berthold Gaster and business manager Shirley Bunis.
The story of Samuel Neusner is an old-fashioned tale of an immigrant achieving the American dream.
The face of the Ledger
His father was a doctor who wanted him to follow in his footsteps. But Berthold Gaster knew medicine wasn’t for him – he dreamed of being a newspaper man.
Bert Gaster fulfilled that dream as managing editor of the Jewish Ledger from 1960 through 1992, eventually becoming co-owner, editor and publisher.
For many years, Gaster was the face of the Jewish Ledger. By day he wrote stories and laid out the newspaper in the old cut-and-paste days of newspaper layout. By night he attended meetings and lectures and other functions around the Greater Hartford Jewish community.
Born in 1929 in Vienna, Austria, Gaster with his family, arrived in the U.S. in 1939, settling in Brooklyn, N.Y.
After graduating high school at the age of 15, he attended City College of New York, where he majored in history and economics. Deciding that the newspaper world was for him, he applied to the University of Iowa, where he got his Master’s degree in journalism.
His first newspaper job was for a newspaper in Wyoming. He later moved to Big Rapids, Michigan, where he became the sports editor. After a year, he ended up at a newspaper in Gloversville, N.Y. While there he married his wife Adele, a Brooklyn native and a patient of his father.
After Gaster’s stint as a music reviewer and editor at a newspaper in Wilmington, Del., the Gasters moved back to Brooklyn, where he worked for Town & Village, the Stuyvesant town newspaper.
In 1958, he was hired by Samuel Neusner to be managing editor of the Jewish Ledger, which was then located on Asylum Avenue in Hartford.
It was Gaster’s first time at the helm of a Jewish newspaper, but, as Adele Gaster told the Ledger in 2009, “Bert was deeply immersed in Jewish life.”
The Gasters, who by then had two children, were happy in Hartford – they both had sisters who lived in the area.
When Gaster took over the paper in 1967, it quickly became a family affair. Adele, who died in 2011, often accompanied him to the many events he had to cover, and she wrote reviews of local plays.
Their son covered sports for the Ledger, while Bunis’ daughter Harriet sold ads for the Ledger for many years.
But Bert Gaster, who won numerous awards and honors for his work at the paper, was always seen as the face of the Ledger. “He was very hamish…very friendly. People would always come into the office to see him – rabbis, politicians, people from organizations.
And he always had time to talk to them,” said Trudy Goldstein, who was hired by Gaster 38 years ago and who, at 87, still works at the Ledger.
Rabbi Philip Lazowski, rabbi emeritus of Beth Hillel Synagogue in Bloomfield, was Gaster’s next door neighbor for many years.
“We were very friendly. I would go to his house to talk about certain issues pertaining to Israel and politics. He was a bright young man, and he knew how to put certain things in proper perspective.”
Rabbi Lazowski said that Gaster was a “staunch supporter of Israel.”
“He was a very interesting young man with a background of knowledge. He knew the score quite well.”
In 1992, Gaster and Bunis sold the Ledger to a consortium of businessmen that included N. Richard Greenfield. Gaster had been ailing due to a stroke, and died that year.
“He was lucky. He had time to think about all he had done,” Adele recalled. “He said, ‘I had a wonderful life and did everything I wanted to do.’ He accomplished everything he wanted.”
Bert Gaster won numerous awards and honors for his work at the paper.
N. Richard Greenfield
An outspoken advocate for the Jewish people
Born in Sharon, Mass., N. Richard Greenfield was a successful Wall Street stockbroker when, in 1992, he joined a consortium of businessmen who purchased the Ledger from its editor and publisher, Bert Gaster.
Two years later, he bought out his business partners and assumed the mantle of Ledger publisher.
Though it was his avocation, Greenfield – “Ricky,” as he was known to family and friends – approached his role as Ledger publisher with seriousness of purpose and an overwhelming sense of responsibility to the Southern New England Jewish communities his paper served.
During the course of his 20-year tenure, Greenfield used the pages of the Ledger to advance Jewish unity and promote Jewish thought and ideas. Above all, he was a steadfast pro-Israel activist, fearlessly speaking out in defense of the Jewish state, often biting in his criticism of those whom he perceived as putting the Jewish state in jeopardy.
An unapologetic conservative, he was a “political junkie, active in conservative politics locally and nationally. He counted among his close friends a slew of politicians, as well as political commentators and consultants, including former Connecticut Congressmen Rob Simmons and Chris Shays, the late U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Jeanne Kirkpatrick, top Republican political strategist Arthur Finkelstein, and Jerusalem Post columnist Caroline Glick.
Though their political views often diverged, Greenfield was also a good friend of Connecticut’s former U.S. Senator, Joe Lieberman, whose candidacy he championed during each of Lieberman’s political runs.
Greenfield oversaw the paper from his home in Norwell, Mass., where he lived with his wife Karen, making frequent visits to Ledger’s offices in West Hartford, and then Hartford.
An unassuming leader, he refused to assign himself a private office in his own firm. Instead – as he had as a Wall Street stockbroker – he set up stakes at a small desk on the Ledger “floor,” where he would work amid the din of a busy office staff. Greenfield would arrive in the Ledger’s Hartford offices each week sporting a baseball cap and carrying a tote bag stuffed with legal pads filled with scribbled notes for article ideas and potential ad programs, as well as clippings of newspaper and magazine articles of interest…and maybe a couple of bottles of diet Coke. He shared them all with staff.
In addition to the opinions he expressed on the editorial pages of his own newspaper, Greenfield’s op-eds were widely published in numerous print and online publications, including The Algemeiner, Jewish World Review, The Future of Capitalism, American Thinker and The Jewish Press.
Though he believed the paper should be dominated by local news, he himself remained involved in Jewish affairs on a national level. Among his many affiliations, he had served on the New York Board of Governors of the Middle East Forum, the National Board of Directors of the Zionist Organization of America, the New York Advisory Board of CAMERA (the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America), and as chairman of the Board of the University of Connecticut Hillel.
In February 2014, with his health failing, Greenfield was finding it harder and harder to oversee the Ledger’s operation. And so he decided to sell the paper to Hartford philanthropist and businessman Henry M. Zachs, who had become a friend of Greenfield’s when the two were involved in UConn Hillel.
A few weeks after the Ledger was sold in late February – just three days shy of his 72nd birthday – Greenfield passed away after a brief illness, while visiting his son’s family in San Francisco, Calif.
To honor his memory, the Ledger has set up a fund at the Jewish Community Foundation in West Hartford to establish the annual N. Richard Greenfield Memorial Lecture. The first lecture, held in cooperation with the University of Hartford’s Greenberg Center, will be held at the university in April 2015, to coincide with Greenfield’s first yahrzeit.
A commitment to community
There are few members of the Connecticut Jewish community as attentive to its needs – and as reverent and protective of its history – as Henry M. Zachs.
Thus, it was no surprise when in February of this year the Hartford area businessman stepped in to purchase the Jewish Ledger after learning that its publisher, Ricky Greenfield, was compelled for health reasons to relinquish his post.
“Ricky Greenfield has done an outstanding job of serving the Ledger’s readership of all ages, affiliations and backgrounds,” Zachs said in February, as he assumed leadership of the paper. “He has kept our community informed and up-to-date about the important issues affecting Jewish life locally, nationally, abroad and in Israel. He has handed over a publication that is well-respected throughout the country and I am pleased for the opportunity to continue in that tradition.”
It certainly isn’t the first time the ubiquitous benefactor has gone to bat for a local Jewish agency or business.
Among his many philanthropic endeavors within the Jewish community, Zachs provided funding for the construction of Zachs Hillel Houses at both Trinity College and Connecticut College and, along with Morris Trachten z”l, UConn’s Trachten-Zachs Hillel House; and, as of this writing, he was finalizing plans for the construction of another Zachs Hillel House – this time on the campus of the University of Hartford. In addition, in 2006 the West Hartford campus upon which Hebrew Health Care, the Mandell JCC and the Federation’s Community Services Building sits was renamed the Zachs Campus in recognition of his family’s generous gift to the Federation’s capital campaign; he has helped fund the renovation of Camp Laurelwood in Madison, which is currently underway; and, just prior to purchasing the Ledger, Zachs was at the forefront of a community-wide effort that kept in operation The Crown Market, West Hartford’s popular and iconic kosher food emporium.
The Ledger and Zachs could not be a better match. Both are defined by community: The Ledger by disseminating information and fostering a sense of unity; Henry Zachs by his extensive track record of hands-on community involvement.
To be sure, Zachs, who is founder and CEO of Message Center Management, has never been content to sit on the sidelines – which is what prompted the Ledger to include him on the newspaper’s end-of-year list of Movers and Shakers in 2007.
Among his community activities: Zachs served as president of the Jewish Federation of Greater Hartford, and still sits on its Board of Directors; in addition, he has served as a director or trustee of several organizations, including the Connecticut Historical Society, Ados Israel Synagogue, The Wadsworth Atheneum, the Hebrew High School of New England, Solomon Schechter Day School of Greater Hartford, and the Hillels of Trinity College, the University of Hartford and UConn, and more. For several years, he has led the Association of Jewish Cemeteries of Greater Hartford, which works to provide proper care and ongoing maintenance in perpetuity to Jewish cemeteries.
At the Ledger, Zachs looks forward to a future that keeps the 85-yeasr-old publications in step with the changing times. Among the changes he expects to oversee are a new state-of-the-art Web presence, a new look for the print paper, as well as many new features and columns.
Ultimately, Zachs’ motivation is simple.
“Jews need to support fellow Jews, but you also need to support your community,” he says. “You have to give back and set an example for your children and grandchildren.”
The Ledger and Henry Zachs could not be a better match: Both are defined by communuty.