Mazel tov! A magazine is born – Behind the scenes of a Jewish South African fixture

October 2016

By: Eliana Cline

It’s hard to remember a time when Jewish Life magazine wasn’t a commonplace item on every Jewish coffee table. But just nine years ago, it didn’t exist, and may never have existed if not for an innocent question.

The seeds were sown when Martyn and Liz Samuels were beginning their journey back to Torah Judaism and they found themselves in West Street Shul. They looked around and were surprised that there was not a high-quality, monthly Jewish magazine to be found. “I asked Rabbi Kacev why there wasn’t a decent Jewish magazine. He thought for a second and said, ‘that’s a good question. You should go and speak to the Chief Rabbi,’” recalls Martyn.

If anyone else had asked the question, the conversation likely would have ended there. But for Martyn and Liz, the answer sparked something which would change South African Jewry forever. Martyn had years of experience in magazine publishing and knew the medium inside out, with first-hand knowledge of what it took to create a successful publication. As a family who was busy discovering the richness and beauty of the Jewish heritage, they were both overwhelmingly passionate about the things they were learning and desperately wanted to share their discoveries. As Liz describes, “We were finding so much richness and depth in Judaism, and we wanted to spark an interest in others. ere is a wealth of in- formation and history, so many layers and things to learn.” With their hearts on re and the know-how available to actualise their dream, they envisioned a high-quality, world-class Jewish lifestyle magazine as the perfect medium to do exactly that.

“We realised there was a big gap in the market,” describes Martyn. “We really wanted to create a Torah-rich magazine focused on what people want to know if they want to live a Jewish life. We wanted to educate, inform, entertain, and inspire – all in an accessible way. We knew it had to be comparable to high quality magazines in the non-Jewish world.” The crucial challenge was to get the tone of the magazine right. “With my background in publishing, I was very conscious of the broader publishing world. A magazine is not just about relaying information; a magazine has its own personality. And getting the right balance of content to create the correct personality is critical,” explains Martyn.

They had no external funding, but pressed ahead anyways, driven by a deep belief in what they had to offer and a desire to spread Judaism in an accessible format. “We took a huge risk,” says Martyn. “While we knew that there was a real editorial need for this type publication, we were (and still are) completely self-funded. I now had the job of get- ting advertisers on board a magazine that they had never seen.” With a commitment to solid content and impeccable quality, he began looking for advertisers to back the publication and hiring the right team to get the first issue out. They were grateful that they found support from their advertisers without even an issue to show them. Liz was astonished at the positive sentiment and willingness that advertisers expressed about being associated with such a magazine. “Over and over we saw – and continue to see today – that advertisers wanted to identify with the Jewish community. It’s a real testimony to our community,” says Liz.

Martyn drew on his contacts in the publishing world. Linda Superfain, who has worked with Martyn for 18 years, became director of operations and has been on board ever since. Finding Jewish Life’s original editor, Paula Levin, was providential. “I wasn’t even looking for a job,” says Paula. “A friend in Australia saw the advertisement online and forwarded it on to me. I was intrigued, so I went for the interview.” While Paula had no prior experience as an editor, she brought along something which no CV could ever capture: a burning love for Judaism and a passion for making it accessible to everyone. “I was a magazine features writer. It was just about taking my knowledge of the magazine world and leveraging Jewish content,” says Paula.

The First Issue

With things going full-steam ahead towards the publication of the first issue, most of the team were caught up in the excitement and the myriad of things which needed to be done. ere were, however, some tense moments. Chandrea Serebro, the magazine’s feature writer, was particularly nervous, “While it wasn’t the first time I was writing or being published, here I was, in my own community, writing about what I love, about people I admire and respect, for people I wanted to inspire. Nervously, I conducted my first interview, and once I’d finished writing, I pored over every word of that article, trying to get the right combination of insight and wit into the piece while being true to my own writing voice.”

Liz also recalls a moment of panic. Standing at the printing press and waiting for the first issue to come off, in anticipation of the 13 000 that were to be printed, Liz suddenly realised the enormity of what they were doing. This has to work,” she thought. Fortuitously, from the start they had the support of key people which enabled getting those copies to their target market. “We wanted to reach as many Jewish homes as possible,” says Martyn. “Identifying our target market and where to find them was easy – schools and shuls were the perfect place to distribute the magazines. Right from the beginning

Rabbi Craig Kacev, the director of the SABJE, and Chief Rabbi Warren Goldstein were in full support of what we wanted to do.” us, the very first issue was available (and every is- sue since) in the Jewish schools, and shuls nationwide.

Finally, after months of planning, hard work, and anticipation, the first issue of Jewish Life magazine made its way to Jewish- homes across South Africa. It lived up to all of the hopes that the team had. “When the first issue came out, I was proud. e Jewish Life team had collectively done an outstanding job. e magazine, from cover-to-cover, looked glossy and sleek, and inside was a treasure trove of interesting information, clever insight, and funny tidbits – something for everyone,” says Chandrea. And readers felt the same. From those initial days, the magazine has become a trusted brand which is found in almost every Jewish home. Having arrived at its 100th issue, it’s clear that the magazine answered the need that Martyn and Liz Samuels initially perceived.

Martyn believes that it was the magazine’s commitment to quality that was a big part of it becoming entrenched in the South African Jewish community. “Of course it had to be professional, look good, and have quality paper. is, combined with world class content – local and global – make it a differentiator. A magazine is more than just the paper – it’s a living breathing thing,” he says. A self-confessed perfectionist, Martyn is pedantic that every aspect of the magazine – from the de- sign, to the sub-editing, to the mix of con- tent – lives up to the brand the team has worked so hard to establish.

A Unique Magazine

Readers of all sorts – Jewish, non-Jewish, religious, secular, local, and international – love the magazine. Talking to the team, there is no doubt that its reception is a direct result of the love and passion which exists

behind the scenes. “I put my heart and soul into each issue. It was a huge privilege [to serve as the editor].” With this G-d consciousness, Paula saw G-d’s hand throughout. “There was so much Divine providence. I would actually leave out a few pages each month because I knew that, at the last minute, something would come up which needed to be published. I had an epic sense that this was holy work. I‘ll never forget when I received a letter from a reader that he kept his first Yom Kippur because of the magazine.” Linda also describes the readers’ feedback as memorable, “When people stop you and tell you how much they love the magazine and how its impacting them, I feel important. It’s wonderful to know I am having a positive impact on people’s lives.”

Dovid Samuels, who frequently writes for the magazine stepped in as the subeditor this year, notes that, “In a community as diverse as the one we have here in South Africa, it’s a near impossible task to create a product that can speak to everyone. Jewish Life has within every issue something for every member of our community – from religious to secular, adult and child, serious and light-hearted, an avenue of interest into our vibrant and even spectacular culture and religion – while never compromising on the ideals that make our faith so beautiful. Behind the scenes there is so much e ort to ensure only the best content finds its way into the magazine, and there is a constant focus to continually up the bar and to provide for our ever-changing and ever-growing community.”

Behind the scenes

Those who work on the magazine comment on the uniqueness and cohesiveness of the Jewish Life team. Having taken over the reins from Paula last May, Robert Sussman, the current editor, explains, “ the publishing industry is all about deadlines and pressure. Things can and do change from one moment to the next and it’s crucial to be able to count on everyone giving his all to get the job done. There’s a real sense of teamwork, that we’re all in the trenches together, and that we really care about each other and have each other’s backs. When one of us succeeds, we all succeed. That’s a great feeling in any job.” Rizelle Hartmeier, the designer, strongly echoes this sentiment. “As a freelance designer I have worked with many people. But this is the best team I have ever worked with. They understand that we are people with families and not just employees. It’s like a family.” As the only full-time employee who is not Jewish, Rizelle says she has developed an immense appreciation for the Jewish religion, especially the profound psychological aspects it encompasses.

Heidi Hurwitz, who stepped in as guest editor when Paula went on maternity leave, and eventually assumed the role of subeditor for several years, explains how it was “a great opportunity to be able to work and learn at the same time. I enjoyed what I was reading, and every article was an opportunity for me to learn Torah, which was very inspiring. I learned more and more, and thus was always growing as a person. It was amazing to be a part of a brand that was aimed at achieving excellence in the art of journalism, design, and Torah.”

The Future

Over the past nine years the magazine has become an entrenched product and brand in the community, and has received international acclaim. “It has been nice to see the magazine go from one which has occasionally contained reprinted material to being a magazine that now gets requests from websites and periodicals around the world for reprints of our great original content. Our international footprint is slowly, but surely increasing,” says Robert.

Samuels sees exciting possibilities for the magazine as it forges ahead towards its second decade. First is the entry into the digital landscape. “We did not rush into making a digital version. You can’t read it on Shabbos.” But the magazine has recently launched an app for iOS and Android and has re-designed the Jewish Life website. is allows each issue to be read around the world as soon as it is published. And talking of activity “around the world” Martyn notes that, “ ere is the potential for taking the magazine to other countries around the world, creating a sort of franchise in other large cities. Much of the editorial content is borderless and can be combined with a country or city’s local material. We have gained a lot of experience and knowledge that would be very useful to an existing publisher or an entrepreneur wishing to work with us to create their own more local editions. We are interested in talking more about such opportunities.”

But first and foremost – the future of Jewish Life South Africa is to carry on doing the sterling task of what it has done from its very first issue: inspiring, educating, informing, and entertaining South Africa Jewry.

It’s hard to remember a time when Jewish Life magazine wasn’t a commonplace item on every Jewish coffee table. But just nine years ago, it didn’t exist, and may never have existed if not for an innocent question.

The seeds were sown when Martyn and Liz Samuels were beginning their journey back to Torah Judaism and they found themselves in West Street Shul. They looked around and were surprised that there was not a high-quality, monthly Jewish magazine to be found. “I asked Rabbi Kacev why there wasn’t a decent Jewish magazine. He thought for a second and said, ‘That’s a good question. You should go and speak to the Chief Rabbi’” recalls Martyn.

If anyone else had asked the question, the conversation likely would have ended there. But for Martyn and Liz, the answer sparked something which would change South African Jewry forever. Martyn had years of experience in magazine publishing and knew the medium inside out, with first-hand knowledge of what it took to create a successful publication. As a family who was busy discovering the richness and beauty of the Jewish heritage, they were both overwhelmingly passionate about the things they were learning and desperately wanted to share their discoveries. As Liz describes, “We were finding so much richness and depth in Judaism, and we wanted to spark an interest in others. There is a wealth of information and history, so many layers and things to learn.” With their hearts on fire and the know-how available to actualise their dream, they envisioned a high-quality, world-class Jewish lifestyle magazine as the perfect medium to do exactly that.

“We realised there was a big gap in the market,” describes Martyn. “We really wanted to create a Torah-rich magazine focused on what people want to know if they want to live a Jewish life. We wanted to educate, inform, entertain, and inspire – all in an accessible way. We knew it had to be comparable to high quality magazines in the non-Jewish world.” The crucial challenge was to get the tone of the magazine right. “With my background in publishing, I was very conscious of the broader publishing world. A magazine is not just about relaying information; a magazine has its own personality. And getting the right balance of content to create the correct personality is critical,” explains Martyn.

They had no external funding, but pressed ahead anyways, driven by a deep belief in what they had to offer and a desire to spread Judaism in an accessible format. “We took a huge risk,” says Martyn. “While we knew that there was a real editorial need for this type publication, we were (and still are) completely self-funded. I now had the job of getting advertisers on board a magazine that they had never seen.” With a commitment to solid content and impeccable quality, he began looking for advertisers to back the publication and hiring the right team to get the first issue out. They were grateful that they found support from their advertisers without even an issue to show them. Liz was astonished at the positive sentiment and willingness that advertisers expressed about being associated with such a magazine. “Over and over we saw – and continue to see today – that advertisers wanted to identify with the Jewish community. It’s a real testimony to our community,” says Liz.

Martyn drew on his contacts in the publishing world. Linda Superfain, who has worked with Martyn for 18 years, became director of operations and has been on board ever since. Finding Jewish Life’s original editor, Paula Levin, was providential. “I wasn’t even looking for a job,” says Paula. “A friend in Australia saw the advertisement online and forwarded it on to me. I was intrigued, so I went for the interview.” While Paula had no prior experience as an editor, she brought along something which no CV could ever capture: a burning love for Judaism and a passion for making it accessible to everyone. “I was a magazine features writer. It was just about taking my knowledge of the magazine world and leveraging Jewish content,” says Paula.

The first issue

With things going full-steam ahead towards the publication of the first issue, most of the team were caught up in the excitement and the myriad of things which needed to be done. There were, however, some tense moments. Chandrea Serebro, the magazine’s feature writer, was particularly nervous, “While it wasn’t the first time I was writing or being published, here I was, in my own community, writing about what I love, about people I admire and respect, for people I wanted to inspire. Nervously, I conducted my first interview, and once I’d finished writing, I pored over every word of that article, trying to get the right combination of insight and wit into the piece while being true to my own writing voice.”

Liz also recalls a moment of panic. Standing at the printing press and waiting for the first issue to come off, in anticipation of the 13 000 that were to be printed, Liz suddenly realised the enormity of what they were doing. “This has to work,” she thought. Fortuitously, from the start they had the support of key people which enabled getting those copies to their target market. “We wanted to reach as many Jewish homes as possible,” says Martyn. “Identifying our target market and where to find them was easy – schools and shuls were the perfect place to distribute the magazines. Right from the beginning Rabbi Craig Kacev, the director of the SABJE, and Chief Rabbi Warren Goldstein were in full support of what we wanted to do.” Thus, the very first issue was available (and every issue since) in the Jewish schools, and shuls nationwide.

Finally, after months of planning, hard work, and anticipation, the first issue of Jewish Life magazine made its way to Jewish homes across South Africa. It lived up to all of the hopes that the team had. “When the first issue came out, I was proud. The Jewish Life team had collectively done an outstanding job. The magazine, from cover-to-cover, looked glossy and sleek, and inside was a treasure trove of interesting information, clever insight, and funny tidbits – something for everyone,” says Chandrea. And readers felt the same. From those initial days, the magazine has become a trusted brand which is found in almost every Jewish home. Having arrived at its 100th issue, it’s clear that the magazine answered the need that Martyn and Liz Samuels initially perceived.

Martyn believes that it was the magazine’s commitment to quality that was a big part of it becoming entrenched in the South African Jewish community. “Of course it had to be professional, look good, and have quality paper. This, combined with world-class content – local and global – make it a differentiator. A magazine is more than just the paper – it’s a living breathing thing,” he says. A self-confessed perfectionist, Martyn is pedantic that every aspect of the magazine – from the design, to the sub-editing, to the mix of content – lives up to the brand the team has worked so hard to establish.

A unique magazine

Readers of all sorts – Jewish, non-Jewish, religious, secular, local, and international – love the magazine. Talking to the team, this is no doubt that its reception is a direct result of the love and passion which exists behind the scenes. “I put my heart and soul into each issue. It was a huge privilege [to serve as the editor].” With this G-d consciousness, Paula saw G-d’s hand throughout. “There was so much Divine providence. I would actually leave out a few pages each month because I knew that, at the last minute, something would come up which needed to be published. I had an epic sense that this was holy work. I‘ll never forget when I received a letter from a reader that he kept his first Yom Kippur because of the magazine.” Linda also describes the readers’ feedback as memorable, “When people stop you and tell you how much they love the magazine and how its impacting them, I feel important. It’s wonderful to know I am having a positive impact on people’s lives.”

Dovid Samuels, who frequently writes for the magazine stepped in as the subeditor this year, notes that, “In a community as diverse as the one we have here in South Africa, it’s a near impossible task to create a product that can speak to everyone. Jewish Life has within every issue something for every member of our community – from religious to secular, adult and child, serious and light-hearted, an avenue of interest into our vibrant and even spectacular culture and religion – while never compromising on the ideals that make our faith so beautiful. Behind the scenes there is so much effort to ensure only the best content finds its way into the magazine, and there is a constant focus to continually up the bar and to provide for our ever-changing and ever-growing community.”

Behind the scenes

Those who work on the magazine comment on the uniqueness and cohesiveness of the Jewish Life team. Having taken over the reins from Paula last May, Robert Sussman, the current editor, explains, “The publishing industry is all about deadlines and pressure. Things can and do change from one moment to the next and it’s crucial to be able to count on everyone giving his all to get the job done. There’s a real sense of teamwork, that we’re all in the trenches together, and that we really care about each other and have each other’s backs. When one of us succeeds, we all succeed. That’s a great feeling in any job.” Rizelle Hartmeier, the designer, strongly echoes this sentiment. “As a freelance designer I have worked with many people. But this is the best team I have ever worked with. They understand that we are people with families and not just employees. It’s like a family.” As the only full-time employee who is not Jewish, Rizelle says she has developed an immense appreciation for the Jewish religion, especially the profound psychological aspects the religion encompasses.

Heidi Hurwitz, who stepped in as guest editor when Paula went on maternity leave, and eventually assumed the role of subeditor for several years, explains how it was “a great opportunity to be able to work and learn at the same time. I enjoyed what I was reading, and every article was an opportunity for me to learn Torah, which was very inspiring. I learned more and more, and thus was always growing as a person. It was amazing to be a part of a brand that was aimed at achieving excellence in the art of journalism, design, and Torah.”

The future

Over the past nine years the magazine has become an entrenched product and brand in the community, and has received international acclaim. “It has been nice to see the magazine go from one which has occasionally contained reprinted material to being a magazine that now gets requests from websites and periodicals around the world for reprints of our great original content. Our international footprint is slowly, but surely increasing,” says Robert.

Samuels sees exciting possibilities for the magazine as it forges ahead towards its second decade. First is the entry into the digital landscape. “We did not rush into making a digital version. You can’t read it on Shabbos.” But the magazine has recently launched an app for iOS and Android and has re-designed the Jewish Life website. This allows each issue to be read around the world as soon as it is published. And talking of activity “around the world” Martyn notes that, “There is the potential for taking the magazine to other countries around the world, creating a sort of franchise in other large cities. Much of the editorial content is borderless and can be combined with a country or city’s local material. We have gained a lot of experience and knowledge that would be very useful to an existing publisher or an entrepreneur wishing to work with us to create their own more local editions. We have been speaking to interested parties about such opportunities.”

But first and foremost – the future of Jewish Life South Africa is to carry on doing the sterling task of what it has done from its very first issue: inspiring, educating, informing, and entertaining South Africa Jewry.

Related posts