(Editor’s Note: The following story from August 1994 received a second-place Rockower Award for Excellence in Investigative Reporting from the American Jewish Press Association, along with its preceding story from May 1994, “How Jewish a Star.”)
Jewish Star publishers compare local Jews to Nazis, advertising practices under scrutiny
The publishers of the Jewish Star say they are being persecuted because of their beliefs.
But sentiment in the Jewish community is that the uproar is due to the couple’s actions over many years. The controversy was sparked by an article in the May issue of The Southern Shofar, “How Jewish a Star,” which revealed that the Jewish Star’s publishers, Margie and Marvin Rudolph, were “messianic” Jews and had kept it hidden for 30 years.
They unintentionally made that revelation during the April 24 broadcast of “21st Century Guidelines,” a paid religious program on WABM-TV (Channel 68). They went on the show to promote a new magazine and did not intend to discuss their beliefs, but the conversation nevertheless ran in that direction.
The Rudolphs have published the Jewish Star for 18 years. Since the story broke, a large number of Birmingham’s Jews have returned the publication or called in an attempt to have their names removed from the mailing list.
But a series of cover stories on WBMG-TV (Channel 42) uncovered a primary reason why the Jewish community is upset about the self-described “largest Jewish news magazine” in the state — allegations that the publication uses fears of a Jewish boycott and the label of “anti-Semite” to sell advertising space.
The revelation that the Rudolphs are not Jewish, as defined by every segment of the Jewish community from Orthodox to Reform, is seen as the final irony to a thorny story that has troubled the Jewish community for well over a decade.
These allegations are not new. A letter, dated Aug. 5, 1985, was sent to the Star asking about reports of pressure tactics.
It was signed by the rabbis of all three local congregations, as well as Temple Emanu-El Rabbi Emeritus Milton Grafman, and was sent in response to requests for High Holiday messages, similar to those which appear in most Jewish newspapers at that time of the year.
Grafman told WBMG that “Christians in the community claimed they had been approached by Marvin Rudolph (who) had said that if they didn’t advertise, word would be spread that they were anti-Semitic.”
“This outraged us,” Grafman said.
In the letter, the rabbis said they were disturbed “by calls we have received from non-Jews… they complained that your sales representative indicated to them they would be considered anti-Semitic if they refused to advertise in your paper. They indicated, also, that the Jewish Star was represented to them as the official publication of the Birmingham Jewish Community.”
The letter then asks if these reports were true, and if they were, then the rabbis would refuse to write for the paper. “To do so, if these complaints have validity,” the letter continues, “would mean any message from us in the Jewish Star would be placing our imprimatur on this type of business practice.”
It also reminds that “you and we know, of course, that the Star is a private enterprise, not the official voice of the Birmingham Jewish Community.”
Grafman said a response to the letter was never received. Since then, there has not been anything written by the community’s rabbis for the Star.
George Sarris, who was interviewed by WBMG, said he was pressured by the Rudolphs in an attempt to get him to buy advertising space in the Jewish Star.
Sarris owns the Fish Market Restaurant. He said the Rudolphs came in to the restaurant and asked him if he would advertise in the next issue. When he declined, he said Mr. Rudolph told him “you’re going to lose a lot of Jewish customers who have been doing business with you. All the Jewish people doing business with you, I’m going to have to tell them that you don’t advertise.”
When WBMG asked about Sarris’ charges, Mr. Rudolph shifted uncomfortably, then responded, “No way. I don’t know where he is coming from.”
Told of Mr. Rudolph’s denial, Sarris responded, “He’s a liar.”
This exchange was in the third of the four segments, which aired from July 25 to Aug. 2 during the evening newscasts. John Harrod, news director for WBMG, gave the reports.
One viewer of the third segment was Jeff Pullen, owner of the Steel City Diner in Vestavia. The very next night, the Rudolphs were in his restaurant, with an invoice for an ad he disputes.
Readers of the latest issue of the Jewish Star saw a half-page ad from the diner, though Pullen said he never has run an ad that large in any publication, and does not have the money to run ads except in trade-outs.
He said he agreed to business-card size ads that would be paid for in full trade-out. The ad would have the diner’s logo and hours.
But the ad had a large graphic from the front of the take-out menu, and an Elvis clip-art graphic that Pullen did not supply.
An invoice soon followed for $375, the price of a half-page ad. Pullen said the Rudolphs had eaten there about 10 times before the ad ran, and he’d kept a running total for the trade-out. The invoice stated that the account was, at that point, paid in full.
But when the Rudolphs came in on Aug. 2, they presented a “corrected” invoice showing a 50/50 cash/trade charge and claimed Pullen owed half the amount in cash.
When he stated the agreement was for full trade, and not for an ad that large, Rudolph reportedly told him there was nothing in writing saying that.
Pullen also said Rudolph represented the paper’s readership as 15,000 readers in Birmingham and 10,000 in Huntsville.
In interviews, however, the Rudolphs claim a circulation of 8000, half of whom are Christian. That comes to 4000 Jewish households, far more than exist in metropolitan Birmingham.
Pullen said he was under the impression the readership was almost entirely Jewish. Rudolph did not mention that the readership was half non-Jewish “until after the series began to air.”
But Mr. Rudolph told WBMG that he “always” tells advertisers “that we’re not limited to the Jewish population.”
Pullen added that it really did not matter to him, since “numbers are numbers.”
Another merchant in Mountain Brook who did not want to be identified told The Southern Shofar that he has “never been browbeaten” as when the Jewish Star tried to get him to advertise.
When he declined, the publication’s representative began to question the merchant’s competence in running a business.
Numerous other businesspeople, in the last few years, have related similar stories to The Southern Shofar. And while the series aired, WBMG received calls from several merchants who had similar experiences.
The Rudolphs claim that they are at peace because of their beliefs.
But in the second segment of the series, they lashed out at the Jewish community for what they perceive as persecution.
Mr. Rudolph said that Jews “will tolerate anything, including lesbians, homosexuals, whatever… anything such as this, except for Jesus Christ.”
Mrs. Rudolph then portrayed many Jews as atheists. “I know many a Jew that go to the temple, and stand there in their fine clothing and daven, but they are atheists.”
She also attempted to portray the Jewish community as racist. “You go to the Jewish Community Center but you don’t see black children swimming in the pool.”
The Rudolphs are not members of the JCC, nor have they been seen at the facility in many years. But Harrod, who conducted the interviews, not only is a member of the JCC, but takes his family swimming there every weekend. He told Mrs. Rudolph that he regularly sees blacks at the JCC, and asked what she was suggesting.
“I’m just suggesting they pick and choose who they want,” she replied.
The JCC’s membership policy is non-discriminatory, and there are many black members. Also, many community agencies use the facility for meetings. One agency that regularly uses the building is the National Conference of Christians and Jews’ Anytown program, a prejudice-reduction camp for high school students.
JCC President Julian Brook told WBMG that in the 20 years he has been on the board, the JCC has never rejected a single application for membership.
Another allegation that left many shaking their heads in disbelief was Mr. Rudolph’s comparison of the Jewish community to the Nazis.
“It’s ironic,” he said, “that Jews want to condemn us, or wipe us out because of our belief in the Lord Jesus Christ. That’s a similar situation as Nazi Germany. The Nazis wanted to wipe out the Jews for a similar reason.”
Grafman was incredulous. “The Rudolphs have not been threatened or subjected to being placed in a concentration camp. They have not had their business shut down… the Jews of Birmingham are persecuting the Rudolphs? It’s laughable.”
Indeed, the Jewish community’s response has largely not dealt with their beliefs.
Rabbi Jonathan Miller of Temple Emanu-El said the Rudolphs “should be proud of the fact that they are Christians, but they shouldn’t be trying to pose themselves as members of the Jewish community or people who are representing the Jewish community.”
That sentiment has been largely echoed in the community, which has largely ignored the publication for many years.
Many in the community knew of allegations that the Jewish Star used pressure to gain advertising, but felt unable to do anything about it except to reassure businesspeople who asked community members after encounters with the publication.
But even those who didn’t know of the allegations noticed that there were very few articles about the local Jewish community, and most of them were picked up — with or without attribution — from publications like the Birmingham News or Birmingham Post Herald.
From Sept. 1992 to Sept. 1993, the Jewish Star ran fewer than 30 local articles. In that time, The Southern Shofar ran more than 360.
Evangelical figures who came to Birmingham, though, were prominently featured as friends of Israel and, by extension, the Jewish community. And all over town, many still recall how the publication touted Pat Robertson’s bid for the presidency — something which was generally viewed with alarm in the Jewish community nationwide.
Since The Southern Shofar began publication almost four years ago, the Rudolphs have attended no more than five events aimed at the Jewish community — usually the local Jewish National Fund dinners, which usually honor Christian friends of Israel and are organized in Atlanta. But they did not attend last year’s dinner.
Also, the Jewish Star is habitually published late. Passover issues filled with Passover ads would arrive up to a month after Passover, and Rosh Hashanah issues arrive during Sukkot. The most recent holiday issue, for Israel Independence Day, arrived during the first week of June, though the holiday was April 14.
Returned to sender
Now that all this is becoming public, many in the Jewish community are trying to get their names removed from the Jewish Star’s mailing list. But not all are successful.
Others who do not subscribe but receive the paper anyway say they have not cancelled the paper so the Rudolphs can continue paying the postage to send it out, even though they do not read it when it arrives.
Three weeks after the Star’s May/June issue came out, the Rudolphs admitted receiving 84 copies returned to them. But those who returned their paper report they still received the July/August issue.
And several callers to The Southern Shofar complained that a man answering the phone at the Jewish Star office, who refuses to identify himself, tells callers their names cannot be removed from the mailing list.
Louis Rosenblum said that was what happened when he called to have his name removed from the list.
Two other callers said they were told that the only way to be removed from the list would be to send the mailing label off the paper in a certified letter.
Michael Miles, a spokesman for the U.S. Postal Service in Atlanta, said he has never heard of a third-class mailer refusing to remove a name from a mailing list.
“Why would you ask for that kind of trouble?” Miles wondered.
If a mailer persists in refusing to stop sending a publication, Miles added, it might constitute harassment.
Mrs. Rudolph said she is puzzled at the controversy. “I’m no different today than I was 18 years ago… they’ve accepted me for 18 years, and there’s nothing in my newspaper… that I’ve tried to proselytize these Jewish people.”
But an attempt to proselytize set off the chain of events that brought this story public. Morty Dolinsky, who was the head of the Israel Government Press Office in the mid-1980s, told The Southern Shofar a month before his April 1994 death that the Rudolphs tried to proselytize him during their 1993 visit to Israel.
The Rudolphs visited him at the suggestion of former Alabama First Lady Bobbie James, who developed a close friendship with Dolinsky.
The Rudolphs assert that Dolinsky — who was Orthodox and lived in Jerusalem’s old city — was interested in a deathbed conversion.
But Dolinsky said he was disturbed by the attempt to proselytize him — something that none of the Christian groups he hosted and spoke to ever attempted. Dolinsky said he told Mrs. James to “send me your Christian friends, send me your Jewish friends, but don’t send me Christians disguised as Jews.”
The Rudolphs maintain they did not hide their beliefs from the community, even though they do not attend a messianic congregation nor have written about their beliefs in their publication.
They also maintain they have not tried to mislead anyone.
However, after WBMG began doing interviews for the story, the masthead slogan of the Jewish Star changed from “Alabama’s largest Jewish news magazine” to “Alabama’s prominent non-sectarian news magazine.”
And despite the Rudolphs’ claims to the contrary, many advertisers have dropped out of their publication.
The bottom line
A summary of the entire controversy came, perhaps unintentionally, from John Phelps, pastoral leader of Beth El Shaddai, a “messianic” congregation in Hoover.
Phelps asked the Jewish community, “Do you see anything that has been deceitful? Do you see anything that has tried to mislead you or misguide you?
“Or do you see a paper that has tried to address your issues, inform you of things going on, that has tried to be always up front and aboveboard with you? That would be the way to judge the publication. Not because these people happen to accept Jesus as the messiah,” Phelps said.