Rabbi reveals smoke and mirrors of reality TV

When National Geographic Channel’s reality television series “Church Rescue” featured the Pacific Jewish Center (PJC) in Venice Beach last month, the synagogue’s leader, Rabbi Eliyahu Fink, praised the episode. 

“Overall, I thought it as a great portrayal of our shul,” Fink said.

But was it reality?

“After I had the opportunity to be on the show here, I was given a really firsthand view of how much the producers try and create the environments that the show is looking for,” Fink said. “I don’t have a problem with it, I am not saying I have a complaint, I’m just stating it somewhat as fact,” he said.

Fink held a live online chat during the Dec. 23 airing of “Church Rescue.” Nearly every other post during the session was written by Fink and disclosed what was real and what was not about the episode.

“Church Rescue” takes the model that was popularized by the series “Extreme Makeover: Home Edition” and “Bar Rescue” — in which a charismatic personality transforms struggling homes and businesses — and applies it to places of worship.

The premise of the six-part series is simple. According to its Web site: “Running a church takes more than faith, and even the holiest of institutions can fall victim to harsh realities. Enter the ‘Church Hoppers’ — three business-savvy ministers who travel the country helping faith-based organizations re-establish themselves in the marketplace so they can continue the good word to their followers.”

“Shalom Improvement,” the episode featuring the congregation on the Venice Beach boardwalk, led to many upgrades at PJC, an Orthodox community that has seen highs and lows since its founding more than 60 years ago. A “Church Rescue” crew spent several days there in May, replacing ceiling tiles, refurbishing the wood of the bimah, painting a mural inside the building and beautifying the children’s area.

But while the show brought many positive changes to a shul in need, it also — for Fink, at least — illuminated a side of reality television that many people do not know about.

Consider the truth behind how an “intervention” scene was presented on TV and how it actually happened, Fink said. Before filming, the show’s hosts asked the rabbi to come up with a problem that the shul is facing that would be interesting but not too controversial. Racking his brain, Fink said he decided on a problem most shuls could cite: the inability to attract young members. 

“Church Rescue” ran with this. Dramatic music played as the show’s hosts grilled Fink on his inability to bring in the younger crowd, telling him to take responsibility for his shul. A serious-looking Fink reluctantly swallowed the advice on-screen. 

While watching the scene at his home last month, Fink could not keep his discomfort to himself. 

“This intervention is, like, completely contrived,” he said. (Reservations about reality television aside, Fink expressed gratitude to the show for the renovation of the shul, particularly of the children’s area. They did a “really good job,” he said.)

Fink, 32, has built a reputation in the Orthodox community as a rebel who speaks truth to power. His popular blog, Fink or Swim, features posts that have denounced the attitudes of the ultra-Orthodox about technology, challenged rituals such as kapparot and more.

“I’m not breaking rules,” Fink said about his approach to Jewish life. “I am explaining the rules that people apply erroneously.” 

That his shul was featured on a reality television represents a full-circle experience for Fink. In 2010, Fink posted about a Modern Orthodox contestant on “America’s Next Top Model” whose commitment to being shomer Shabbos was allegedly misrepresented due to dishonest editing on the part of the show’s producers. 

This was why he agreed to participate in “Church Rescue” — to help start a dialogue about how much is real in reality television, Fink said. He dismisses the idea that by participating in the show he was being hypocritical. Distinguishing the episode about PJC from other reality TV shows was that “we had a long conversation about how we could create this drama, and I agreed to be part of it,” he said. 

“It was fun,” he said. “And I hope people take it for what it was — entertainment.”