In a world of blaring flat screens, billboards and flashy gadgets all vying for people’s attention, those with a religious calling frequently have to use a variety of mediums to connect members of their flock to spirituality.

It’s a principle not lost on the Jewish world, which counts a number of American cities with Jewish-formatted radio stations and programs. Among them are a slew of talk and call-in shows in major media markets hosted by rabbis continuing a tradition that began more than 50 years ago with the dissemination of Chasidic teachings through the New York air waves.

Rabbi Pinchas Ezagui, director of Chabad-Lubavitch of Greater Daytona and one of a group of broadcasters stretching from Baltimore, Md., and Rochester, N.Y., west to Detroit, Mich., and south to Miami, Fla., remembers that almost two decades ago, a colleague got up at the International Conference of Chabad-Lubavitch Emissaries to talk up the merits of hosting a radio program.

“He asked us all a question,” begins Ezagui, who has a Sunday morning show on WNDB 1150 AM, host station of the annual Daytona 500 stock car race. “How many people come to your average class? 50, 100? What if I told you you could have 5,000 or 10,000 people at your class?

“That’s when it hit me,” continues Ezagui. “We’re all trying to reach out to people, and there’s no better way to reach out to the masses.”

The rabbi’s first crack at broadcasting came in the form of “The Jewish Sound,” the show he ran for a year at a small local station. The gig was mainly a chance for him to learn the ropes. He took a tape of the show to WNDB, the local CBS affiliate, and before he knew it, he landed a Sunday morning slot.

He’s kept the show’s original title and presents a mix of content.

“There’s discussion, there’s music, there’s news from Israel, I conduct interviews,” he says. “I really try to balance it out.”

Numerous personalities have appeared on the show over the years, including the late actor and comedian Alan King.

“He was a great guest. People were really impressed when he came on,” recalls Ezagui. “We spoke about humor, and how it’s always been a part of Jewish culture.”

Max Leiderman, a retired accountant originally from the Washington, D.C. area, counts himself as one of Ezagui’s most loyal listeners. He first tuned in some 14 years ago.

“It’s a very interesting program,” says Leiderman. “He does a wonderful job, he speaks about what’s going on in the Jewish calendar and he’s always expounding on different parts of the Torah.”

Detroit’s Rabbi Hershel Finman has been hosting a radio show for 15 years.
Detroit’s Rabbi Hershel Finman has been hosting a radio show for 15 years.

Ambassadors and Call-Ins

Some ways down the I-95 interstate in Palm Beach Gardens, local Chabad-Lubavitch emissary Rabbi Dovid Vigler is just breaking out in the radio world. His show has been on the air for only a few months, but Vigler holds it up as a vital way to connect to people in a Jewish community where just 15 percent affiliate with local institutions.

“There are people out there who would never walk into a synagogue, but who now listen to my classes over the radio,” explains Vigler. “It is literally a virtual classroom.”

Harry Kaufman of Seaview Radio 960 AM came up with the idea. He wanted a rabbi who would be able to communicate Jewish lessons and spiritual messages in a positive and uplifting manner.

“I had a non-Jewish friend who had a storefront business near the Chabad House, and he told me that the rabbi next door should have his own radio show,” says Kaufman. “I met with Rabbi Vigler, and I was impressed.”

Before his first show, Vigler was reassured by the station that it was perfectly normal for an average program to not get any call-ins for the first six months. His first broadcast got five calls. Future shows logged more, with calls coming from Jewish and non-Jewish locals alike.

“Rabbi Vigler is articulate and magnetic. He has a real talent for it,” says Kaufman. “If you listen to the program you feel as if you’re the only one that he’s talking to. Every show, I really learn something.”

Over in Detroit, Rabbi Hershel Finman has been hosting the area’s only Jewish radio show for the last 15 years. His guests have included Jewish performers, two governors, three U.S. senators from Michigan, and every Israeli ambassador to the United States since the show’s inception. The operation is also a family affair.

“I look for sponsors, I prepare the news and I think of the questions,” says Finman, who estimates he puts in three hours a week of preparation for the two-hour show. “My wife is the producer.”

Linda Mendelson, a resident of Southfield, Mich., says that she’s an avid fan and encourages her friends to tune in.

“I really love it and look forward to it. What’s different about Rabbi Finman is that it’s in an upbeat and contemporary style,” says Mendelson. “His interviews really cover the gamut of stuff. Artists and musicians, he talks with all of them.”

Through it all, he weaves Torah lessons into his interviews and monologues. That’s a vital, but difficult task, says Rabbi Shmuel Kaplan, regional director of Chabad-Lubavitch of Maryland, who has been hosting “Awake, Alive and Jewish” at on local stations since 1980. The rewards, though, can be endless.

“The question for us, before we bring a guest on the show, is how does the topic promote Torah and Judaism?” explains Kaplan, whose booming voice can be heard on WMET 1160 AM on Sunday mornings in the greater D.C. area. “One prime example is when we had Sen. Joe Lieberman on during the height of the 2000 presidential elections. He was running for vice president and had a unique perspective on spending Shabbat in so many different places. He was able to offer insight on being a religious Jew in the midst of a highly-demanding political campaign.”

With few exceptions, Kaplan and his co-host broadcast live. (The show this Sunday, the holiday of Purim, will actually be taped beforehand.) Their banter provides “a certain edge” that for 30 years, has kept people engaged.

“We’re on a 50,000 Watt station,” states Kaplan. “You reach anywhere and everywhere, and you really don’t know who is listening. There was once a guy who approached me in the middle of a store to tell me that he used to live in a rural area 30 minutes outside of Washington. One day, he picked up the show, and didn’t stop listening. He said he lives a religious life today because of it.”