New hosts hope Jewish TV will become must-see TV

Jerry Isaak-Shapiro needed to be reminded to smile. Alan Lew served as the resident rabbi, fielding questions from the stage manager and an occasional reporter who waited to take advantage of the rabbi on the set.

Now, Suzan Berns, the producer of "Mosaic" and "A Jewish Perspective," will have two new hosts to get used to. And with them, a whole new set of quirks.

Rabbi Yoel Kahn will be replacing Lew as host of "Mosaic," and Rabbi Henry Shreibman will be replacing Isaak-Shapiro on "A Jewish Perspective."

Kahn is scholar-in-residence at San Francisco's Congregation Sherith Israel, and Shreibman is head of school at Brandeis Hillel Day School, which has campuses in San Francisco and San Rafael.

On the one hand, the two Sunday television programs may be among the Jewish community's best-kept secrets. With the former airing at 5 a.m. and the latter at 6 a.m., they're not exactly prime-time viewing.

On the other hand, guests on the shows are often surprised by the number of people who tell them, "I saw you on TV."

Both programs follow a talk show format, focusing on issues of interest to the local Jewish community. And despite their time slots, each one gets an estimated 50,000 viewers, according to Berns.

"Lew was interested more in spiritual and cultural kinds of things, and Isaak-Shapiro was more interested in current and contemporary events like Israel," she said. "But with both, we try to cover anything going on in the Jewish community. We utilize people visiting, scholars or Israeli speakers."

As Mosaic is rebroadcast at 2:30 a.m. on Sunday morning, Berns said the two shows are often watched by "people who are insomniacs or people just coming home and flipping channels."

"Mosaic," which appears on KPIX Channel 5, alternates with a Catholic and Protestant perspective. "A Jewish Perspective," which appears on KRON Channel 4, also alternates with programs of other faiths, appearing every fourth week.

The S.F.-based Jewish Community Relations Council is the executive producer of the two programs, and Berns — whose day job is associate director of marketing and communications at the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation — has produced them both for eight years. No one could quite remember how long Lew and Isaak-Shapiro have hosted the shows, but Berns estimated that each has served for about 10 years. Both are out of the area now, with Lew on sabbatical and Isaak-Shapiro on a fellowship in Jerusalem.

As producer, it is Berns' job to plan the shows together with the hosts. She also helps find the guests and is in the studio for the taping.

"We do not edit these shows," she said. "The only time we start over is if someone says something they shouldn't, or if there's a mechanical problem."

Like the time an Israeli guest used the word Shvartze on "A Jewish Perspective." Berns signaled to the crew to stop taping.

"Jerry laughed and said he would have explained that it wasn't appropriate, but I was over-concerned," said Berns.

Lew's last show was never broadcast. "His final show was supposed to be [taped] Sept. 11," said Berns. "We were going to have a feel-good show," but, because of the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington, "we didn't have a show at all."

When deciding who should replace Lew and Isaak-Shapiro, Berns and Rabbi Doug Kahn, executive director of the JCRC, brainstormed about people who are both knowledgeable and seemed camera-friendly.

"They had to have a broad range of knowledge and interests, and to be able to interview almost anyone who came on the show," she said.

Yoel Kahn seemed to fit that bill, even though he admits none of his prior experience — including service as spiritual leader at San Francisco's Congregation Sha'ar Zahav and as executive director at Stanford Hillel Foundation — has prepared him to be a Jewish Oprah.

"Rabbis like to talk a lot, so I'll have to practice being quiet," he said, "but it's very Jewish to ask a lot of questions, so I'll be good at that. My style is waiting to develop."

Kahn said he had quite a few ideas floating around in his head for upcoming shows, including some controversial topics in the Jewish community, like the debate over circumcision.

"I'm hoping we'll liven it up by not just nice conversation, but having challenging conversation, with guests who take different perspectives," he said.

Kahn's first guests will be Rabbi Sheldon Marder, rabbi at the Jewish Home in San Francisco, and Madelyn Rose and her son Avi Rose, who will talk about aging in the Jewish community. The show will be broadcast on Oct. 21.

Saying that he's excited to get started, Kahn added, "We know it's very early, but we encourage people to turn on their VCRs."

Shreibman's first show will be broadcast on Sunday.

Alix Wall
Alix Wall

Alix Wall is a contributing editor to J. She is also the founder of the Illuminoshi: The Not-So-Secret Society of Bay Area Jewish Food Professionals and is writer/producer of a documentary-in-progress called "The Lonely Child."