BY Erika Morris & Ian Down
Every month Mark Groysberg puts together Golos Obschini (The Voice of Community), one of Montreal’s five Russian-language newspapers. When the paper first started in 1994, Groysberg handled the deliveries himself. It gave him a chance to see who picked it up.
He still gets calls, letters, and emails from readers about how much they like the paper. “For this reason we continue the newspaper,” he says.
After all the articles are edited and the ads are in, Groysberg lays everything out and makes sure 5 000 copies hit stands across Montreal. He runs the paper with the help of volunteers and a few paid employees like a proofreader and distributors. The paper can be found in 100 stores, businesses, and offices around the city, and is Montreal’s first—and only—Russian-language Jewish paper.
Last December, the 70-year-old Ukrainian editor celebrated his paper’s 25 year anniversary.
“Newspapers don’t have a big life in Canada. They go online like La Presse and all these newspapers,” says Groysberg. “But, Russian-language newspapers continue. Why? Because we have immigrants coming.”
Groysberg says that though newly arrived immigrants can go online, they are often more comfortable with hard copies. When the paper first started, social media wasn’t around.
Though the paper focuses on Jewish content, he says Russian-speaking people from different cultures and faiths still pick it up.
Groysberg did try to shut the paper down a few times due to a lack of funding from advertising. A few years ago, no Voice of Community was printed for a few months, and suddenly Groysberg received several calls.
“‘Mr. Groysberg, what happened, we’re looking for the newspaper, no more newspaper?’” he says they asked. “I explained we don’t have enough advertisements, we can’t continue.”
I immediately received a cheque for $500,” Groysberg laughs in disbelief. “From time to time people send cheques, we do fundraising, and the Jewish Community Foundation gave us a small grant and advertisement. It is helpful.”
Groysberg was born shortly after the Second World War near Kiev. He came to Montreal in the ‘80s after having worked as a journalist, photographer, and teacher in Europe for several years.
In 1994, Israel Sirota, a Russian-speaking Rabbi, suggested they create a newspaper.
“I told him I was a reporter but I never managed a newspaper,” says Groysberg. His brother, who had recently immigrated, was a professional journalist, correspondent, and editor. They put together The Voice of Community with a small grant from the Jewish Community Foundation (JFC) Montreal before Hanukkah.
“And from that point we made history in our community,” says Groysberg.
“We tried to do our newspaper for Russian-speaking Jews, but at the time we had people with different cultures and religions because we came from the former Soviet Union,” he continues. “This was a newspaper in Russian-language, a Canadian newspaper, for all Russian-speaking people, so we put different articles. We had news, culture, tradition, history, everything.”
He says when immigrants arrive, they want to know what they can do and remember their roots.
The newspaper has an office in the Jewish Russian Community Centre in Cote-Des-Neiges. The centre opened in 1972, at a time when there weren’t many Russians in the city as life behind the Iron Curtain made it very difficult to leave Soviet Russia. Groysberg said when he arrived in Canada, the Russian-speaking Jewish community was only about a hundred strong.
“It was not easy to leave, [people who left] were risking a lot. They were fired from their jobs, expelled from university just for wanting to leave, so the exit was very difficult,” says Anna Sirota, who works at the community centre.
“When they came here, slowly they adjusted. After the 90s and the fall of communism, it was like people were free to leave,” she says. “People came in different ways. Some came as refugees, some as sponsored immigrants, economic immigrants, all sorts of ways. Then the Russian community grew here.”
She says most of the early Russian-speaking community was Jewish, but now they are a minority since people from different republics of the former Soviet Union have come. Groysberg said now there are about 20,000 Russian-speaking Jews in Montreal. Even though The Voice of Community focuses on Jewish issues, it also reaches out to all Russian-speaking people and it is widely read within the community.
“They don’t necessarily come to our centre, although we have non-Jewish people who come also, especially for cultural events, but the papers are distributed widely in non-Jewish Russian communities as well,” says Anna Sirota.
She stresses that having the newspaper is important as not everyone has a good command of French or English when they first arrive. The newspaper can also appeal to those who have been established in Montreal for a long time as they cover both local and foreign news specific to the community that other publications don’t.
Rabbi Sirota says it’s important to keep the language alive when people immigrate, and that like any newspaper, The Voice of Community is key to reach everyone in a community so spread out around the city.
In Russia, newspapers are very cheap. Russians are highly educated people with over half of the country’s adults having a post-secondary education.
“Sometimes you’ll see people stand in line, not for bread, but for newspapers,” Rabbi Sirota says. “People read a lot of books and newspapers. But, in newspapers we put every single major event that happens in the community and we advertise what events and problems exist in the community.”
The Voice of Community often advertises festivities at the community centre, like weddings, bar mitzvahs, bat mitzvahs, and cultural events for Jewish holidays.
“The community centre is here to bring people closer to the community. When people come, like new immigrants, we try to help them find a job, share food,” says Rabbi Sirota. “The community centre helps people in many ways.”
Groysberg says one of The Voice of Community’s goals—along with sharing news and promoting events—is to shed light on ongoing anti-semetism around the city. Many shameful laws and events from the time of the Second World War have been swept under the rug, neo-nazis reside in the city, and there have been instances of people painting swastikas on synagogues.
“It’s shocking,” Groysberg says. “Anti-semitism is still in life.” In January, The Voice of Community addressed anti-semitism in an open letter to Montreal Mayor Valerie Plante, denouncing her refusal to adopt an internationally recognized definition of anti-semitism.
Anna Sirota says the newspaper has also been vital in keeping the community together and keeping community traditions alive.
“We want our children to be fully integrated in Canadian, Quebec, and Montreal society,” she says. “The children have an easier time with the language barrier; it’s older people who have a harder time. They say, ‘Oh I was an engineer, a director, and I’m here now for my children because they have a bright future here.’ It might be hard to change countries in the middle of your life, but you do it for the next generations.”
The newspaper helps ease the transition.