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A lesson learned, or a missed opportunity

Over recent months, I have had the dubious experience of watching a significant amount of broadcast television. Suffice it to say, some of it was good, and some quickly became a fleeting memory.

One of my “discoveries” was TBN, the Trinity Broadcasting Network. TBN identifies itself as “the world’s largest Christian television network.” Although much of the programming did not attract my curiosity or interest, there was one standout in the group – Pastor Joel Osteen. He does not proselytize in a loud, Bible-thumping sort of manner. Instead, with a calming, reassuring voice, he delivers words of faith, hope and optimism based on a biblical foundation.

Now, a slight digression. I am Jewish, and intend to remain Jewish. I received a religious education, was Bat Mitzvah, trained and worked as a religious school teacher. I am also a lawyer, MBA (finance), and have been a marketing consultant and entrepreneur by genetics and practice.

The point is that when watching Pastor Osteen, essentially I was in “enemy territory,” being exposed to a very popular Christian perspective. Yet, realistically, I have to admit that there were times when I felt that Pastor Osteen had put his finger on the pulse of my current challenges, and offered comments that gave me some degree of immediate solace. This reaction is not based on naïveté. I know that the Lakewood Church of Houston, Texas, where Pastor Osteen is affiliated, would be pleased to welcome me as a new, contributing member, just as they would welcome every other viewer of the broadcast.

However, my reaction is slightly different. After watching, and appreciating the affect of Pastor Osteen’s comments on his audience, I am left wondering the same thought which I always have at Christmastime: if Irving Berlin could write “White Christmas,” why can’t the Jews do something equally stellar to enhance their own cause?

So, in 2014, what does one often do when exploring an issue? They turn to Google. And so did I.

Apparently, there are currently at least three Jewish-centric television networks in the United States: Shalom TV, The Jewish Channel, and Jewish Life Television.  Although I have a fairly broad exposure, not only have I never seen any programming from these networks, I have never even heard of their existence.

Perhaps that is the essence of the problem.

It was then that I began to think about the differences resulting in the apparent success of TBN, versus the relative obscurity of the Jewish television networks. Such a comparison may bring new perspective to the development of Jewish media, and, as a byproduct, give impetus to generating additional synagogue membership throughout the United States.

First, a brief understanding of the population.

Numbers Can Be Important

Pastor Joel Osteen’s television ministry, as part of TBN’s broadcasting menu, reaches more than 100 million homes in the United States alone.

Conversely, according to the Pew Research Center 2013 Survey of U.S. Jews, the most broad-based count indicates that there are 5.3 million adult Jews in the United States. Of this total, 1.2 million claim to be “Jews of no religion.” However, if one includes the added categories of “Jewish background” and “Jewish affinity,” as well as Jewish children, the total number of Jews in the United States increases to approximately 10.7 million people.

Counting every Jewish adult and child in the United States, the total is still barely 10 percent of the total households exposed to Pastor Osteen’s program.

The paucity of a target Jewish audience is compounded by an added fact, also concluded by a Pew Research Center study: fewer than one-third of American Jews hold membership in a synagogue.

The conclusion would seem to be that as incredible a job as Jews have done to survive, flourishing for more than 3,750 years, there is always room for improvement.

Judging A Book By Its Cover

Recognizing the model of success for TBN, and adapting certain key points, may help to re-shape some attitudes and interests within the Jewish community. The result offers the potential to embrace many isolated Jews while, at the same time, furthering the tenets of Judaism and strengthening the Jewish family in America for succeeding generations.

First, look to the name of the network. Trinity Broadcasting Network sounds benign. Yes, there is significance to the word “trinity,” but it requires thought and is not obvious. For an uninformed viewer, “trinity” could simply represent a grouping of three (perhaps the three founders of the network). Note that the network is not labeled “Christ’s Network” or any other blatantly pietistic name.

In their website, TBN cites the three reasons viewers select their broadcasting: “Faith in God. Love of family. Patriotic pride.”

These values are universal. They do not reflect on any religious denomination, ethnic heritage, or any limiting segment of the population. In fact, although a practicing Jew, I admit that I qualify as a TBN viewer: I have faith in God, I love my family, and I have patriotic pride.

Conversely, there are the networks of Shalom TV, The Jewish Channel, and Jewish Life Television. These names are inferentially segregationist: unless you are prepared to subject yourself to everything Jewish, don’t even bother watching.

The point is that the Jewish networks, by their very identification, have made themselves insular and exclusionary. It is particularly important when dealing with smaller numbers (10 million versus 100 million) that every effort be made, both obviously and subtly, to include as many people as possible when identifying a potential viewing audience.

I would recommend considering a different name for a Jewish broadcasting network, perhaps VBN, the Values Based Network. This name offers appeal for a universe greater than an identifiable Jewish population; it has the potential to attract people from other religions who are either unaffiliated or dissatisfied and who are curious and looking for answers. And, it may also be attractive to Jews who are not comfortable wearing an overt label of identity.

What’s Beyond The Name?

Judaism has always emphasized learning. This proposed network needs to focus on current, practical issues which are at the center of universally personal concerns and not center on uniquely Jewish topics, although the range of “Jewish” issues should certainly be included.

Pastor Osteen focuses his comments on relationship matters, health issues, financial difficulties, encouraging people to have faith, to be thankful for the present and hopeful for the future. Although the issues discussed are very current, Pastor Osteen draws from the writings of both the Hebrew Bible and the Christian Bible. The central fact is inescapable: faith is a widespread concept. The distinction and the pivotal question to be answered is “faith in what?”

The point to recognize is that Pastor Osteen understands how to make the biblical lessons relevant to listeners who are mired in the problems of their very limited existence. Viewing it another way, he understands how to market the lessons to a self-absorbed public so that they are willing to open their minds and take in his comments. Extending this interest further, many members of the audience then become more receptive to church affiliation on a consistent basis in an effort to reinforce what they have learned through their initial exposure via television programming.

Throughout history, Jews have always been regarded as the intelligentsia. When developing a broadcasting network, the objective is to look for the largest common denominator: it must be much larger than simply being Jewish. The emphasis needs to embrace a practical, common-sense approach to information, rather than a self-imposed limitation only to the intellectual, if one is to try to appeal to the largest possible viewing audience. The messages must be accessible to a range of ages, intellects and experiences; it is important to remember that “to be Jewish” is not a stereotypical concept, and the programming should be equally diverse.

Further, and as tempting as it may be, the world view of Israel, along with its ongoing survival and support, should not be the basis upon which to develop a network.

Think about a political election as a comparison. An electorate does not typically vote based on broad international issues, other than in response to a specific war in which the government has chosen to participate. Instead, voters are primarily interested in the “bread and butter” issues which have direct, measurable, usually financial impact on their individual lives. The subjects need to be of universal, day-to-day appeal: families, finances, health (think Pastor Osteen). Teach the Jewish values in very current terms, using the Hebrew Bible as the reference point.

Keep in mind that there is a difference between giving people what they want and what they need. A broadcasting network which can bring ongoing benefits to its viewers, along with achieving resulting success, recognizes that a balance must be achieved between the “wants” and the “needs.”

People want guidance, reassurance, a way to do things better (and easier), and a reason to get up in the morning. They want hope, they want to be told that their problems will work out; they want to know what to do next, how to handle difficult people and situations, and how to make their lives and those of their families better than they are currently. These are the basic issues.

What people need are standards, benchmarks, and an ideological framework upon which to formulate the necessary answers to guide their behavior and their choices; this can, and should, be conveyed with a slant towards the principles of Judaism.

However, there is a caveat.

It is inappropriate to constantly repeat the notion of “the Jewish position.” That is not to say that the Hebrew Bible, the Talmud and any other authoritative source should not be cited and used as the basis of discussion. But, to constantly invoke “Jewish” as the standard for comparison is limiting, isolationist, and almost an irritant, which is counterproductive and distracting from the actual points to be made.

Again, consider the political arena. Think about the election process. When voting in national elections, there is no question about which party is endorsing any given candidate. However, once the campaigning concentrates on local candidates, it is often very difficult to determine which party is endorsing a specific candidate; a very intentional gambit.

The major parties are hoping to pick up additional support for their candidates (and, as a result, for the sponsoring political party) if the voters become attached to the candidates as individuals, not as party representatives. When reading promotional mailings for local candidates, frequently it will be impossible even to find the words “democrat,” “republican,” or any other party identifier, anywhere within the copy. This focus on the individual is a calculated way to gain as much broad-based support as possible for the named candidate, without encountering any negative baggage which might result from their party affiliation.

The lesson to be learned is to focus on the values found in the message, not on the labels which identify the speakers. When watching TBN, it is virtually impossible to discern individual denominations. Besides recognizing that the participants are Christian, there is no way for the viewer to determine if the comments are coming from Episcopalians, Lutherans, Protestants or any other sect, and that is intentional. In fact, many of the evangelical churches apparently do not even display any of the most basic religious symbols. The conclusion is that if the viewer were to be targeted by a limiting label, it is possible that the significance of the message would be lost, and the resulting size of the audience reduced.

Is A Jewish Broadcasting Network More Trouble Than It’s Worth?

Of course, even before being concerned with the “how” of the situation, is the question of “why.” Why is there even a need for a broadcasting network skewed to a small, but influential, segment of the population?

For a lengthy period of time throughout history, Jews were geographically confined to limited areas, the shtetls. These physical boundaries isolated and segregated the Jewish population from the rest of society, but also they served to enhance communications within the group about the furtherance of the culture, the religion, the values, and all things involved with “being Jewish.” Within this context, the temple represented the heart of both the school system and the judiciary; the rabbis were the teachers as well as the final arbiters of all issues of conduct and standards of acceptable “Jewish” behavior.

Today, Jews in the United States live with a double-edged sword. On the one side, there are no formal dictates requiring that Jews live in shtetls. Assimilation into the “American way of life” has evolved from a mere aspiration into the norm. However, on the other side, with assimilation and the absorption of the American culture into Jewish homes, the modern synagogue has lost its hold as the center of a Jew’s life. The results generated by the Pew Research Center indicating that two-thirds of American Jewry do not currently hold membership in a synagogue represent the empirical assessment of the situation.

Although in a dire condition, I do not believe that synagogue membership is doomed for obsolescence. Again, I would point to the example of Pastor Osteen and TBN.

The Lakewood Church in Houston was founded in 1959, by Pastor Osteen’s father, using a small feed store as its center of operations. 10 More recently, the church has been based in a 16,000-seat former sports arena, the Compaq Center. By 2005, membership in that church had “quadrupled in six years.”

As charismatic as Pastor Osteen may be personally, I would suggest that the significant increase in his church membership has to do in larger measure to the synergistic effect of his messages combined with the effective use of multiple media formats as a means of conveyance. And, although there may be an on-screen reference to one of Pastor Osteen’s new books, or video/audio messages, there is never any solicitation for contributions on his television programs. (It should be noted, however, that TBN does hold fundraising campaigns utilizing various formats.)

Instead, Pastor Osteen frequently references the Lakewood Church by name, and highlights the experiences of some of the congregants, along with the positive impact of faith on their lives.

The take-away point is that it is possible, if not likely, that an effective broadcast network, combined with active digital media utilization, can serve as a springboard to encouraging a greater interest in localized synagogue support. Perhaps regard such a multi-pronged broadcasting effort as a conceptual and beneficial adaptation of the shtetl. It has the opportunity to become a central repository for a Jewish way of life, information, learning and guidance; and it can counteract some of the negative affects of assimilation which are so often found in daily activities.

To further increase the probability of success, it is imperative that the distribution channels for such a network be reconsidered. At the present, there seems to be a patchwork of cable providers offering the programming of the existing Jewish networks. This limited distribution format becomes problematic because studies have shown that the number of households receiving television programming through traditional pay-TV services has declined by five percent since 2010,12 and will continue to be of diminishing importance as other media formats take precedence. While well-intentioned, if the viewing public is not aware of the existence of these networks, it becomes impossible to generate long-term, effective results.

The network programming should also be available, even if on a limited basis, on free broadcast television, in addition to accessing all other available forms of media; and not rely solely on cable networks for distribution. Again, I reference TBN. It is true that TBN has been in operation for more than 40 years. But, consider their distribution model: TBN programming is offered worldwide on more than 5,000 television stations, in excess of 70 satellites, thousands of cable systems, and online. Obviously, that does not occur overnight. TBN started with one low-power broadcast channel in California, offering only a few hours of programming daily. The focus, though, is to disseminate the message to as many people as possible, utilizing multiple formats, and not to pre-screen excessively when evaluating demographics.

Of course, the most obvious question becomes whether or not the three existing Jewish networks are fulfilling their potential. Unfortunately, I believe that they are each wasting a substantial opportunity.

Shalom TV describes their broadcasting as “covering the panorama of Jewish life,” “directed to every Jewish person,” and “anyone with a . . . desire to gain a greater understanding of Jewish tradition, Jewish life, and the land of Israel.” Describing itself as a “PBS style channel,” programming includes daily news from the Israel Broadcasting Authority, Jewish-themed movies, discussions of world issues, Jewish traditions and children’s programming.

The Jewish Channel indicates an emphasis on Jewish culture through “movies, original news, cultural programming.” It focuses on “touching Jewish experiences . . . that are thought-provoking and compelling . . . facing today’s Jewish community, and connect(ing) with the past.”

Jewish Life Television outlines their programming as follows: news magazine, comedy (i.e. Jack Benny and Soupy Sales), cooking, inspiration (Kabbalah), interview programs, lifestyle (such as arts and fitness), family (a Sesame Street derivative), and webisodes.

To the untrained eye, these three networks are utilizing significant resources and yet appear to be fragmented, redundant and representing a dilution of effort. Incidentally, redundancy in and of itself is not inherently bad, it has worked for ABC, CBS and NBC for decades, with apparent success. But, the model for a comprehensive Jewish broadcasting network is different and the purpose has more serious, long-term implications.

In contrast, consider the stated dream of Paul Crouch when founding TBN. His purpose was to “build a network that would entertain and inspire while transforming individuals, families, and communities.” Perhaps the Jewish networks are addressing entertainment well, and possibly even inspiring viewers on occasion but, from a distance, the transformational thread, which is so critical, seems to be lacking.

Although it is likely not to be a popular stance, I would be inclined to look into the merits of uniting the three Jewish networks as individual divisions under one broadcasting umbrella. This re-configuration would allow for each network to further develop its own specialty and, at the same time, benefit from the economies of scale as related to ongoing program production and distribution costs. Incidentally, this is not an outlandish proposal: TBN has 26 networks within its broadcasting operations, each focused on unique content or demographics.

Television Versus Synagogue

At this time, it would seem that Judaism in America is struggling to reverse the course of a very slippery slope. It is not likely that Jews really want to see an end to an organized Jewish religion or disregard the value of the synagogue within a community. Yet, the well-intentioned, substantial efforts to stimulate interest, which have been made at a grass-roots level, have had only mediocre, haphazard success. Overall, there seem to be two significant stumbling blocks to achieving an increased synagogue membership: time and money.

Of course, the elements of time and money have an impact on virtually every decision which is made within a household today. This makes the challenge even greater when trying to argue that a strong Jewish community, often manifest by a synagogue, is a necessity for the soul, as opposed to a tangible essential for a struggling household.

As one active synagogue leader concluded more than two years ago, “. . . if you are a Jewish consumer looking for value in any traditional cost/benefit sense, don’t join a synagogue.” However, continuing further, maintaining synagogue membership can become a “value proposition” because it serves as “a place where we can confront the central questions of our existence . . . a place where we connect to something larger than ourselves – to our community, to ideas that can transform our world, and even to a transcendent experience.”

At a time when Jewish families in the United States are stretched to the breaking point as a result of an over-abundance of both financial and time commitments, I would suggest that a comprehensive Jewish broadcast network has the opportunity to step in and help to fill the void resulting from the abandonment of synagogue membership.

Rather than model a network based on the lowest level of entertainment standards, why not formulate a Jewish broadcast network on the highest level of aspirational principles (again, think of the impact of TBN)?

Consider all of the roles that a synagogue fulfills within a community – and then translate them to programming which is compatible to various media formats. A synagogue has always been a center for education and personal development, exposure to other views, and awareness of new opportunities. It offers culture, entertainment and camaraderie, along with a lifetime of learning and understanding. And, perhaps most importantly, a synagogue offers a connection to other Jews within the community.

A Jewish broadcast network can be structured to accommodate all of these possibilities and, in the process, can function as an emotional and financial bridge to a better understanding and support of the necessity for synagogue membership in today’s American society.

Essentially, it means creating a network that can be regarded as a touchstone of 21st century Judaism. This is not intended to replace the synagogue, but instead, it can serve as a pain-free introduction to the religion and culture of Judaism; it can embrace viewers and gently lead them back to appreciating the merits of their local synagogue, with the ultimate expectation of increased synagogue membership on a national basis.

The Next Step – Pipe Dream Or Reality?

Structuring a Jewish broadcast network along such broad-based lines should not be equated with swallowing necessary, but unpleasant, medicine. Instead, this creative endeavor should be interpreted as a significant opportunity to strengthen Judaism while addressing modern constraints.

Within Judaism, we are a nation of communities; that is a fact which ought to be celebrated, and not ignored. With a clear focus on the objectives, I contend that successfully modeling a broadcast network on the conceptual offerings of a synagogue, coupled with the lifetime experiential opportunities found in a shtetl, is a viable possibility. And, perhaps more importantly, such a plan offers the potential to contribute greatly to the current health of Judaism as a vital component of the United States, particularly when working in concert with local synagogues. However, it would appear that the three Jewish networks that currently operate are likely at a developmental plateau and are not structured to take an integral role in the furtherance of American Judaism, as proposed.

In general, I have held the position that it is preferable to live life, rather than to watch it pass by on television. However, in this instance, I believe that it is possible to watch television (and other developing media) in order to learn how to live a better life, in particular a better Jewish life. The proposal, as outlined above, provides an exciting opportunity to link Judaism’s strong past to a future full of promise.

This framework for a broadcast network focusing on modern Judaism and its evolution has the potential to do well by doing good. It would be unfortunate to squander such an important opportunity when there is clearly a need and the resources are accessible. Can American Jews really afford to be that wasteful?  

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