May 15, 2003
New Channel BeamsJewish Programming
The soap opera, argues Shlomo Ben-Zvi, is the most Jewish of all television formats.
"Every 15 seconds, you have a dilemma of interpersonal relationships -- and you have to solve them," he said
Ben-Zvi, who emigrated from England 20 years ago, is putting his money where his mouth is. This spring, the 38-year-old, modern Orthodox entrepreneur launched Techelet, a Judaism pay-TV channel, on Israel's cable and satellite networks, and he's already commissioning Hebrew scripts for "the first-ever Jewish soap opera."
Titled, "The Rebbe's Court," it is set in an ultra-Orthodox suburb of Tel Aviv. The Chassidic patriarch, Rav Azriel, has a large and quarrelsome family, shepherded through its tales of wise and wicked sons by Sheyndel, his university-educated rebbetzin with a mysterious past. "Dynasty," you might say, with fringes, "Dallas" with a sheitel (wig).
Techelet (Hebrew for light blue) won the rights for a "Jewish" channel against stiff competition. Its strength, Ben-Zvi claimed, is that it has no party affiliation and no theological ax to grind. "We are," he said, "inclusive and accepting."
The channel transmits 19 hours a day for 12 shekels (less than $3) a month. Half its wholesome programs are locally made; the rest are imported from the United States and Britain. They don't have to be specifically Jewish.
Ben-Zvi lives with his wife and six children in the West Bank commuter settlement of Efrat, between Bethlehem and Hebron. Starting in the property business, Ben-Zvi branched out into information technology and now, with the U.S. cosmetics heir Ron Lauder as a minority shareholder, he has moved into the media.
Techelet's target audience, Ben-Zvi said, is not so much the organized religious world as the two-thirds of Israeli Jews who don't eat pork, who do have a seder at Pesach, light candles on Shabbat and want their sons to be circumcised and their daughters to be married under the chuppah.
Many of the 37 full-time staff at its designer studios in the Neve Ilan Television Center outside Jerusalem are secular young women in jeans and T-shirts. If there's a resident rabbi, he keeps out of sight.
Techelet is emphatically not an on-screen yeshiva.
"People, especially nonreligious people, want to know a lot more," explained Ben-Zvi, the chief executive and majority shareholder. "They are tired of feeling foolish. They want to understand the rituals they keep in any case."
So the channel spotlights Jewish and Zionist history and explores the broader message of the Jewish festivals. It also aspires to foster debate about where Judaism is going.
"We want to provide a platform where people can be challenged to come up with new answers to old problems," Ben-Zvi said.
And it offers two and a half hours a day of "high-quality, clean" children's programming.
"We make sure," he said, "there's nothing parents would find offensive."
The channel has already shown "Anne of Green Gables" and has imported a BBC nature series called, "The Really Wild Show," for which popular Israeli singer Danny Bassan has recorded a Hebrew voice-over.
Techelet has bought the rights to rerun "Pillar of Fire," a 19-part Israel Television series on Zionist history last broadcast 17 years ago. It will also be showing the four-part biopic of Golda Meir, starring Ingrid Bergman.
One hour a night is devoted to the cycle of the Jewish year.
"We're trying to take the festivals out of the closet and give them an airing," Ben-Zvi said. "We're not focusing on the ritual aspects, but on the ethical teachings. We want to make the festivals relevant to modern life."
For Pesach, for instance, the theme was redemption from slavery. Programs included the 12-part adaptation of Alex Haley's "Roots," as well as documentaries on a U.N. campaign to eradicate latter-day slavery in Africa and a look at sex slavery in Israel. For Shavuot next month, the theme is making commitments.
The channel does not broadcast news but has two daily talk shows. One is a women's program with what Ben-Zvi called "eight very good-looking girls from different religious backgrounds."
They are, he explained, trying to broaden discussion of where Jewish women are going. One show featured single religious women who decide to have a child before their biological clock stops ticking.
Longer term, Ben-Zvi is working on an English-language Techelet for distribution in the United States.
"We know there's room for an international Jewish channel," he said. "We're putting together a first offering in Greater New York. It will be a mix of our better programs and new material made in English. We also plan a daily English-language news."
Techelet projects itself as pluralistic, but pluralism has its limits.
"Everybody is welcome so long as they have a serious commitment to Judaism," he said. For example, Meir Azari, a leading Israeli Reform rabbi, recently appeared on a talk show.
"We don't go out of our way to invite spokesmen for non-Orthodox streams," Ben-Zvi said, "but we don't go out of our way not to invite them. We haven't felt the need to disqualify anyone at this stage."
That might not be enough for Israel's small, but growing Reform and Conservative communities. Rabbi Uri Regev, a veteran of many High Court recognition battles who now serves as executive director of the World Union of Progressive Judaism, is already sharpening his quill.
"We shall be pressing for more access," he warned. "They won a license to run a Jewish channel, not an Orthodox one."