Newspapers are tasked with delivering news and holding those entrusted with our leadership — whether government or otherwise — accountable. That means more often than not, reporters might be making certain people angry rather than happy.
But when the Broadway offices of The Riverdale Press were destroyed by firebombing on Feb. 28, 1989, squabbles over the printed word were forgotten — even for a short time — as both friends and foes rallied to support their community newspaper.
The paper’s co-publisher and editor at the time, Bernard Stein, led a team that pulled no punches, even in the face of threats from Iran’s supreme leader back then, Ayatollah Khomeini. No one was free from criticism, not even Rabbi Avi Weiss.
“Buddy had a very, very powerful pen — one of the most powerful pens in news editorials that I ever saw,” said Weiss, who served as senior rabbi of the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale at the time. “The Riverdale Press was an extraordinary paper, and Buddy Stein could have written editorials around the world. One thing that remained consistent was his integrity. He had unbelievable human integrity and ethical understanding of what was correct, and I was so taken by that and I enjoyed that.”
And even though Weiss seemed to find himself on the wrong side of that pen in the weeks and months before the firebombing, once the newspaper found itself homeless and rebuilding, the rabbi never hesitated to rally support. Freedom of expression was forefront in his mind, but so was the chance to give back to a family that had once given to him.
Celia Stein, not only Buddy Stein’s mother but also the matriarch of The Riverdale Press, was steadfast in her support of Weiss’ synagogue in the 1970s when the congregation was still meeting in the boiling room of The Whitehall on Henry Hudson Parkway.
But even with the ashes of the newspaper’s Broadway offices smoldering, Celia met the challenge of soldiering on with confidence, Weiss said.
“I have memories of spending a lot of time with Ceil, and those were beautiful days,” he said. “I was very much involved in political activism, and it was not uncommon for The Riverdale Press to report of those efforts. There were times where we were on opposite sides, but I had an enormous amount of respect for Buddy.”
Weiss was known for his ability to organize rallies for important causes, including for those of murdered children in Israel as well as when 200 girls were kidnapped in Nigeria. And on a cold, rainy day in early March 1989, the rabbi held a rally for The Riverdale Press, attended by many of the city’s biggest leaders, including Mayor Ed Koch, and then Bronx borough president Fernando Ferrer.
From Ferrer’s perspective, every Bronx leader should have shown up that day to express their solidarity. Not only was the newspaper threatened, he said, but the First Amendment and the nation’s civic creed as well. It was crucial to Ferrer to journey to 6155 Broadway and show his support.
“If there was a canary in the coal mine, the firebombing was pretty much it,” he said, referring to much larger terror attacks that would afflict the nation in later years. “This was really the first dramatic example of extremism hitting home. But the community stepped up admirably, and it was an important statement to make.”
The attack against the press and The Press was quite literal that fateful evening 30 years ago, but the more things change, the more they stay the same, as far as Assemblyman Jeffrey Dinowitz is concerned.
“We have a president who is basically stirring up the country against news media outlets, which is quite scary,” said Dinowitz, who was the Male Democratic District Leader at the time. “We have a president today who I think would shut down newspapers. And that’s something that does happen — in fascist countries with dictators.”
The ’89 firebombing stirs feelings of reflection inside the Assemblyman about what it truly means to be free, and what some may take for granted in this country. Yet even then, Dinowitz found a way to channel his frustrations, putting together an action group that bought an advertisement of support inside The Press.
“Well over 100 people and 60 religious organizations put their names to this ad saying that we all stand together as one,” Dinowitz said. “I felt, ‘What should I do?’ We wanted to do something to demonstrate that whatever differences we had, we would stand united against this violence.”
Even today, Weiss says remembering the firebombing still makes him emotional to this day.
“This is about a community paper,” the rabbi said. “One of the best anywhere who rose resiliently because they were so strong. They responded the way one should respond.
“You don’t go low, you go up. And that’s exactly what The Riverdale Press did.”