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Jewish Journal

Evangelists

by Rob Eshman

November 25, 2004 | 7:00 pm

 

I'm driving home from Congregation Shaarei Torah in Arcadia, stuck in hellacious traffic on the 210 near Pasadena. It's late at night, and I know the Chinese food on Baldwin Avenue is good, but certainly not everybody in the county wants dim sum at 10 p.m. Then, on KPCC, I find the cause of the clog.

The Rev. Billy Graham wrapped up his final L.A. appearance at the Rose Bowl, and the more than 80,000 people who came to hear him are going home. To hear KPCC's Rachel Myrow report it, they were going home moved, committed and fulfilled.

The event I spoke at had a few less people. Maybe 50 congregants showed up to listen to me and Jerusalem Post Editor-in-Chief David Horovitz discuss his book, "Still Life With Bombers: Israel in the Age of Terrorism" (Knopf), and current political developments in Israel. It was a good event, nice people, passionate questions, not a few of them longer than the answers. Not every gathering has to be a revival.

But, I thought to myself on the long drive home, why can't any event be a revival? How is it that Judaism, which gave birth to Christianity, doesn't pack in the crowds? Why is it so many of our events have 50 people talking about terror instead of 50,000 people talking about hope? Why isn't there a Rabbi Phil and "The 613 Club"?

Our mass-media age has given us tremendous tools to reach larger and larger audiences, but we resist using them. Either we are uncomfortable with the form, or we lack the learning and wisdom to convey the content.

The irony, of course, is that when it comes to conveying non-Jewish content, Jews have pioneered or mastered these media. Jewish names are everywhere, Jewish content almost nowhere. Almost two decades ago, when Jay Sanderson was working like a dog to raise money for Jewish Television Network (JTN), the most common tongue-in-cheek reaction was, "Hey, we already have ABC, NBC and CBS."

Of course, what Sanderson was trying to do was use the techniques of the mass marketplace to educate Jews and others about Judaism. He saw Christians doing the same on "The 700 Club" and PAX Network and wondered why Jews didn't emulate them. Outside of some very idiosyncratic public access cable and radio rabbis, few have tried.

That brings me to Rabbi Irwin Kula, who is trying. Kula is president of CLAL: the National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership, based in New York City.

"My goal is to bring Jewish wisdom into the marketplace," he said. "My goal is to have Judaism help people become more human, and the byproduct is making Jews more Jewish."

I spoke with Kula over coffee last week at a West Los Angeles hotel. The night before, he had just screened an 18-minute documentary about himself and his teaching to the director Tom Shadyac and a couple dozen invited guests at an industry screening room. Shadyac, who is not Jewish, is the director of "Bruce Almighty," "Liar Liar" and the "Ace Ventura" juggernaut. He saw the documentary, "Time for a New God," at the Telluride Film Festival and was intrigued by this rabbi and his universal message.

Now, Kula is poised in a kind of cultural green room. The documentary and a series produced by JTN has led to a major book deal from Hyperion and a follow-up series for a high-visibility public television slot in early 2006. If all goes well, Dr. Phil will find himself glancing over his shoulder at the rabbi coming up on the outside.

As a former TV personality would say, that's a good thing.

Kula, the son of a cantor, is steeped in Jewish knowledge and unafraid to bring its teachings smack into non-Jewish lives.

The idea of translating esoteric Jewish teaching into the mass culture idiom is not new. A little group called the Kabbalah Learning Centre pioneered it and earned the scorn of world Jewry for its efforts. But what the Kabbalah Centre proved is that non-Jews respond to Judaism not as a way of being Jews, but as a way of being human.

The group's more suspicious practices aside, Kula admires it. It offers upscale, young, post-secular and materially well-off adherents something their lives lacked: meaning.

"They took one insight from kabbalah, just one, and reworked it," he said. "Do you know why you have everything? You receive in order to give."

But Kula's teaching goes beyond such simplicity. It responds to life's hard, eternal questions, as does his faith, with nuance and paradox. He is the anti-Dr. Phil.

"There's a spiritual way that's neither fundamentalist nor New Age, both of which offer easy answers. Life is more like Yaakov's life," he said, speaking of the biblical patriarch. "Life is more like Moses' life."

In the "Simple Wisdom" episode I watched, Kula faces an audience of mostly non-Jews and helps them deal with difficult family issues, often using the lives of the matriarchs and patriarchs in Genesis as examples.

Jews may balk at the idea of reaching beyond the safe confines of the tribe, of imagining a faith that draws 50,000 to a stadium rather than 50 to a shul. But for Kula, that goal is not unworthy of Judaism itself.

"What's the purpose of Jewish life?" he asks. "Is it to be a blessing, or is it to survive? The only way you can survive is by being a blessing."

 

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