Groundbreaking Jewish TV channel

Groundbreaking Jewish TV channel

For The Times published October 2 2016

For Jews all over the world — even the less observant ones — the forthcoming month of festivals, beginning with Rosh Hashanah (New Year) next week (October 3 and 4), and continuing with Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement), is a month of stocktaking. How did we do in the last year, we ask ourselves?

The Jewish festivals can be a dense blizzard of prayers and — particularly for younger people — often highly off-putting, with their repetitive strictures.

But if Oliver Anisfeld, 22, has his way, Rosh Hashanah this year will be different.

Anisfeld, newly graduated from University College London, brims full of enthusiasm, confidence, and statistics.

As well he might. For he is the driving force behind a fiercely ambitious boutique project to put Jewish education and current affairs on-line. J-TV, which bills itself as a “global Jewish media channel”, went live on March 1 this year and since then has achieved just over one million views on both its viewing platform, YouTube, and on Facebook.

Anisfeld reckons “70 per cent of under 34-year-olds get their news from the net.” And he knows, from his own crowd of friends, that “religious literacy” is the exception, rather than the rule. So Anisfeld decided to do something about it.

Raised in a traditionally observant Jewish family — the family business is de luxe smoked salmon and other foodie delicacies — Anisfeld has become passionate about Judaism and how to transmit it in acceptable bite-size chunks to his peers.

“I believed there was a gap in the market”, he says. “I wanted to make Judaism accessible to Jews and non-Jews, who want to learn and understand more about Jewish life and culture – and to do that in a way compatible with the technology of the 21st century”.

J-TV’s formula is very simple: every week four new filmed segments are posted on YouTube, divided into current affairs, Jewish wisdom, movers and shakers, and a section on Jewish food. YouTube, says Anisfeld, “is an ideal platform for J-TV because it’s easily accessible.”. Jokingly, he said there had been much discussion about naming the channel – “we thought of Al-Jewzeera, or JewTube… in the end we decided to stick with J-TV.”

“The key, driving factor”, says Anisfeld, “is Jewish continuity. We want to ensure people are excited and informed about being Jewish. This seemed to me to be the way to do it.”

What Anisfeld has proved particularly good at doing is identifying people who can deliver a Jewish message in an easy-going, palatable format. The rabbis who have become regular guests on the Jewish wisdom sections have a track record of successful interaction with young people.

A typical example is Rabbi Gavriel Friedman, otherwise familiarly known as “Rav Gav”, who has the laid-back attitude of a stand-up comedian. Filmed this month in Jerusalem, Rabbi Friedman discusses a common misconception he believes people have about Judaism, that people might assume that because some religious people behave in a certain way, that is therefore a reflection of the religion. This, he argues, should not be the case. “Don’t judge Judaism by the Jew. … You’ll be surprised to find that a lot of times when people have problems with the way an individual behaves, Judaism also has a problem with that”, he tells Anisfeld.

For the New Year, J-TV will present short films, says Anisfeld. “They will emphasise the value in taking the time, once a year, to remove oneself from the material world (by fasting, refraining from work etc) in order to focus on one’s inner essence, and to reflect on whether the path on which one is heading is in line with Judaism’s core values — and what we wish to be remembered for once we depart from this world”.

The channel has showcased rabbis with unusual back stories, such as South African-born Rabbi Akiva Tatz, a one-time army medic whose keen interest in Jewish medical ethics led him to explore Judaism more deeply. Rabbi Tatz, who says engagingly “I wasn’t brought up religious, I was brought up normal”, appears on a J-TV film explaining the concept of the “Chosen People”. He tells Anisfeld that “the Jewish view is that everyone is unique within the human family. The ‘Chosen People’ is a mistranslation, we are a unique people within the family of nations and we have a particular role to play, which is to unite all the unique facets of humanity into something complex and beautiful.”

Not everyone, of course, has the resources that Anisfeld has. The filming is done on the upper floors of his father’s smoked salmon empire near London 2012’s Olympic Park. In May there was an opportunity to test the reach of J-TV with a first — a debate on the existence of God, filmed before a live audience in the east London studio, featuring the “professional atheist”, Professor A C Grayling, versus the charismatic young British rabbi, Daniel Rowe.

To nobody’s surprise, Professor Grayling did not succeed in convincing the (mainly Jewish) audience that there was no Divine Plan. But Rabbi Rowe’s performance was the more surprising in that — as a classically trained philosopher and mathematician, as well as being a rabbi — he reached for mathematical examples to persuade the young audience of his argument.

Rabbi Rowe has also gamely taken on three atheists in one debate — two disillusioned young Muslims and an ex-Christian believer.

Soon the channel will show three debates between Rabbi Joseph Dweck and the Catholic academic Professor Peter Tyler on points of theological disagreement between Christianity and Judaism.

Besides the Jewish wisdom section of the channel, J-TV has had considerable success with current affairs, luring both former London mayor Ken Livingstone and human rights lawyer Shami Chakrabarti for eyebrow-raising interviews. The then Education Secretary Nicky Morgan and UKiP’s Douglas Carswell MP took part in a pre-referendum debate about the pros- and cons of leaving the European Union.

So far, Anisfeld’s vision is working. The figures, he says, are on target: “The average viewer duration is five minutes per view, which is very high (five minute views on YouTube are extremely unusual). Long views are a testament to the quality of content and the way in which users are engaged. J-TV attracted 100,000 YouTube viewers per month by midsummer, with a target of 250,000 views per month by the end of 2016”.

It seems clear that in creating J-TV Oliver Anisfeld is forcingJewish educators to up their game. It’s no longer enough — particularly with the endless messages from the secular world about the decline of religion — to take refuge in quotations from the Talmud. Anisfeld’s contemporaries want a way in to Judaism which is relevant. His hope is that with J-TV, he is helping to provide it.

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  • 5 October, 2016