Rabbi Eric Weiss is one of the hosts of KPIX TV's "Mosaic."
Rabbi Eric Weiss is one of the hosts of KPIX TV's "Mosaic."

Local Jewish topics get a wakeup call on TV’s ‘Mosaic’

The man sitting behind the anchor desk waited as senior technician Francisco “Paco” Gomez counted down silently on his fingers. Then he turned and faced the camera.

“Good morning, and welcome to ‘Mosaic.’ I’m Rabbi Eric Weiss,” he said with a warm smile.

Another taping had begun for “Mosaic,” a show on KPIX Channel 5 about issues, topics and events of importance to the region’s faith communities. Weiss sits in the host chair during the weeks when the show addresses Jewish themes; alternating weeks feature Catholic and Protestant hosts and topics.

“It’s the only local religious programming show left in the Bay Area,” said Weiss. Religious shows that filled public-service hours on TV and were mainstays in the 1970s had almost entirely disappeared by the ’90s.

Though “Mosaic” airs on Sunday mornings at the ungodly hour of 5 a.m., it is usually taped at a reasonable hour on Wednesdays. For every four-week period, there is generally one Jewish-themed show, one Catholic show and one Protestant show, along with one episode from the archives.

The Weiss-hosted episodes of “Mosaic” provide not only interesting viewing for early rising Jews — or those who know how to set their DVRs — but also an opportunity for viewers outside of the Jewish community to learn something they might not otherwise know.

“We’re giving the non-Jewish community an inside view of the Jewish community,” Weiss said. “That’s kind of rare.”

While exact viewership numbers were not provided by KPIX, “Mosaic” producer Suzan Berns suggested that on any given Sunday, upwards of 1,500 people are watching — and while that’s pretty much a zero on the TV ratings scale, it’s almost assuredly more people than were seen at, say, the “Havdalah and Highballs” gathering the night before. “What’s the biggest number that ever comes to a Jewish event?” Berns asked rhetorically.

J. Editor Sue Fishkoff and J. Publisher Steve Gellman at a taping of "Mosaic" (Photo/Suzan Berns)
J. Editor Sue Fishkoff and J. Publisher Steve Gellman at a taping of “Mosaic” (Photo/Suzan Berns)

The Jewish “Mosaic” episodes cover a range of topics, from philanthropy to film to LGBTQ issues, with producer Berns and host Weiss each pitching ideas to one another. (J. publisher Steven Gellman and editor-in-chief Sue Fishkoff were the guests on the Aug. 20 show.)

“Mosaic” went on the air some 35 years ago, according to its first host, Rita Semel, 96, who was a mere babe in the woods back in those days. Producer and host Hugh Burroughs, who handles the Protestant segments and started at the program in 1982, puts the starting date in the late 1970s.

Semel, a longtime interfaith activist and former head of the Jewish Community Relations Council, said the idea arose because of a Federal Communications Committee rule requiring stations to do more public service programming. The FCC for many years had its Fairness Doctrine, which required broadcast media to provide coverage of controversial issues of interest to its community, and to provide time for contrasting viewpoints.

An interfaith committee Semel was part of went to KPIX and suggested a show that would explore interfaith issues. KPIX, which is owned and operated by CBS, said yes (though the many-faiths-in-one-show format changed over the years).

“It’s fair to say it was one of the first programs of its kind,” Semel said.

Semel was the only host for the first few years, and her weekly show involved topics, guests and viewpoints from a variety of faith communities. “It finally got to be a bit much,” she said of the workload.

In 1987, the FCC determined that the Fairness Doctrine wasn’t working, as broadcasters were choosing to put a “chill” on controversial topics, according to an FCC spokesperson, rather than addressing them with myriad viewpoints (and quite possibly creating waves).

Though the doctrine was eliminated, “Mosaic” stayed on the air. There have been many hosts over the years: the late Rabbi Alan Lew, Rabbi Yoel Kahn, Francesco Spagnolo, curator at the Magnes museum in Berkeley, and now Weiss, who is also president and CEO of the Bay Area Jewish Healing Center.

Berns, a former columnist at J., has been the producer for the past 20 years, and, for awhile, she also produced the now defunct “A Jewish Perspective,” which also ran on KPIX.

Weiss first came to “Mosaic” as a guest, enjoying it enough that he volunteered to step up the next time a host was needed. He has headlined the Jewish program since 2006.

Host Rabbi Eric Weiss (left) and guest Cindy Rogoway of Hebrew Free Loan pause while technician Francisco Gomez works on the “Mosaic” set. (Photo/Maya Mirsky)
Host Rabbi Eric Weiss (left) and guest Cindy Rogoway of Hebrew Free Loan pause while technician Francisco Gomez works on the “Mosaic” set. (Photo/Maya Mirsky)

Hosting a talk show like this is quite a challenge, he said: It requires the ability to have a conversation that feels natural while simultaneously guiding the show and thinking about what viewers might want to know. “A lot of skills I had as a rabbi I realized were transferable,” he said.

Cindy Rogoway, executive director of S.F.-based Hebrew Free Loan, would attest to that. Nervous when she first arrived on set to talk about the impact her organization has made over its 120 years, she said that by the time the show was over, she was calm and relaxed. “Eric’s great at asking questions,” she said.

Weiss said the format, a conversational half-hour broken into four short segments — with no commercials! — gives him the chance to dig into a subject. “It’s not that much time, actually, but you can go deeper in a way that isn’t always possible,” he said.

According to Berns, the Jewish “Mosaic” used to receive funding from the S.F.-based JCRC, and then from the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation, but that all ended in 2007. Now KPIX provides the studio and equipment, as well as a director and cameraman, but, unlike some early hosts who actually got paid, Berns and Weiss are volunteers — something they’re both willing to continue doing.

“We don’t think the Jewish community should lose 30 minutes of airtime,” Berns said, with “airtime” being the operative word. The show cannot normally be seen on YouTube or the KPIX website or anywhere online (unless someone surreptitiously tapes it and posts it). There is a “Mosaic” Facebook page, but it hasn’t been updated for a year.

Still, that airtime is reaching people. Weiss recalled one time when he was in his Jewish Healing Center mode for a workshop in the Tenderloin at a Glide Memorial Church facility, and an evangelical Christian black woman recognized him and started a conversation. Yes, that 5 a.m. Sunday morning talk show had given them a connection.

“She told me how much she’s learned about the Jewish community by watching ‘Mosaic,’” he said.

Maya Mirsky
Maya Mirsky

Maya Mirsky is a J. Staff Writer based in Oakland.