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Ethnic Weeklies Grow Stronger With News From Homeland : Hebrew Supplement's Editor Walks Tightrope on Question of Expatriate Israelis in U.S.

August 20, 1987|SHELDON TEITELBAUM

Noam Niv is probably the only newspaper editor in the world who would welcome a decline in his readership.

Niv, 26, edits the Los Angeles supplement of a Brooklyn-based, Hebrew-language weekly newspaper called Israel Shelanu (Our Israel).

Based in Reseda, Israel Shelanu's Los Angeles supplement has a circulation of 65,000, and is distributed throughout Southern California, either as an insert in the mother paper or as a giveaway.

The 8-year-old parent paper, which has a worldwide circulation of 120,000, is the only Hebrew newspaper in the world published outside the Jewish state. Most of its readership is in the United States, but it also has readers in Canada, South America and Israel.

But Niv is ambivalent about having to have helped transform the 4-year-old supplement into a thriving, 36-page community publication serving the 250,000 Israeli expatriates he estimates live in the Los Angeles area.

"The numbers alone don't bother me as much as the realization that the people coming over are not the country's rejects," he said, "but rather its best and brightest."

Other ethnic newspapers in the Los Angeles area don't fret over the rapid growth of the immigrant populations they serve. But the issue of Israeli emigration--in Hebrew, yerida , or "descent"--is a painful one for Israel Shelanu, and in a sense it sets the paper's tone and character.

In Los Angeles last month to meet with Niv and his rotating staff of 12 free-lance writers and photographers, Shumel Shumeli, Israel Shelanu's founder and editor, warned, for instance, against filling the supplement with too many Israeli success stories.

"Our job is to cover the Israeli community in the U.S. fairly and objectively," he said. "But I don't ever want us to be responsible for someone leaving Israel because of something we wrote.

"We won't judge people for emigrating. But let them think things through for themselves, without encouragement from us. And, if and when they come, we will welcome them."

It hasn't been easy for Niv to toe this line. On the one hand, Niv says people should be permitted to live wherever they wish. But, if all of his countrymen avail themselves of this right, it could spell the end of the Jewish state.

Niv says his own story is fairly typical of the latest wave of Israeli emigration, one which began in the wake of the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon and may prove, he says, to be the most serious in the country's history.

Niv had served as an army officer during the war. And, after his discharge, he worked for a time as a free-lance sports columnist. But he was unable to parlay that experience into a steady job in journalism.

Embittered by the lack of opportunities in his native country, he left for Los Angeles, where the weather and the ambiance closely reflected that of Tel Aviv.

Arriving in October, 1984, he started working for $3.50 an hour in construction. Later, he delivered pizza.

He encountered Israel Shelanu in January, 1985, when the Los Angeles supplement was little more than a poorly produced news sheet. He approached its author, Uri Lehavi, who sent him to write a breaking news story.

Niv couldn't make a livelihood from the paper at first, but Lehavi soon appointed him deputy editor. And, eventually, Niv was able to give up delivering pizzas, supplementing his income by helping to find spots on European teams for lackluster American basketball players. The paper, meanwhile, grew to eight pages, doubled in size and then more than doubled again.

Under his stewardship, which began five months ago, Niv hopes it will expand to 60 pages--three-fifths the size of the parent publication.

The New York paper offers news about Israel and the Jewish world culled, for the most part, from the Israeli press. The Los Angeles supplement is local.

Each issue offers three feature articles about some aspect of Jewish life in Los Angeles, as well as a number of regular columns on entertainment, health, immigration law, sports and community gossip.

About 40% of the paper is advertising.

Niv says his paper also differs from the New York paper in that it is less religiously oriented. "Orthodox Israelis tend to congregate in Brooklyn," Niv explains.

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