The second in a series of articles on Chabad spreading Torah through a variety of media.

Television viewers are always on the lookout for something to pique their curiosity in the split second between clicks of the remote. That “something” can be anything, including a bearded Chabad rabbi. And sometimes, what develops reaches far beyond the flickering screen.

“I’ve gotten calls from people all over—often anonymous,” says Rabbi Yosef Katzman, the host of “A Cable to Jewish Life” show since 1992, “telling me that they know me from television, and that they’d like to talk to me about one issue or another. Since they see me regularly, they feel familiar, but they also retain the comfort of anonymity since they know I have no idea who they are.”

Katzman made his first television appearance in 1990, as a guest discussing Chabad’s decades of clandestine work for Soviet Jewry behind the Iron Curtain, which was falling at that time. Since such work had been kept under wraps for generations, Katzman sought and received approval from the Rebbe—Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, of righteous memory—before appearing on the show.

As the presentation took shape, Katzman developed a relationship with Bea Moss, the show’s host. “She came over to our home for seder and Rosh Hashanah,” recalls the rabbi. “After a while, she tells me, ‘You have a flair for television and should have your own show. Until I met you, I had a negative opinion of Orthodox Jews, but interacting with you and other Chabad people has really changed that for me. You need to get on TV.’”

After a series of consultations with the Rebbe, Katzman began “A Cable to Jewish Life,” in which he interviews people on a wide range of Jewish topics every week.

Katzman with art-Kabbalah mystics Dov Lederberg and his wife (who has since passed on), Yael Avi-Yonah, of Jerusalem.
Katzman with art-Kabbalah mystics Dov Lederberg and his wife (who has since passed on), Yael Avi-Yonah, of Jerusalem.

‘Touching People Deeply’

In some instances, the results of the show have been life-changing.

“One time, we did a show on Yemenite Jews, and included a segment on how Yemenite immigrant children in Israel were separated from their families and sometimes given up for adoption,” relates Katzman. “At the end, we shared a phone number where people who thought they may be adopted Yemenite children could call.”

After the show, six calls came in from Jewish people who suspected they may have been adopted. Two of them ended up being reunited with their families. Since one chose to remain private, the rabbi knows nothing more than that he found his long-lost twin.

Another instance involves a woman from California who had been watching the show at 6:30 a.m.—the time that the program aired on the West Coast.

After some detective work in cooperation with the Israeli government, she traveled to Israel to share her story. In the end, she reconnected with her birth mother.

“She then came back on our show to say thank you,” says Katzman. “She said that she tuned in every Sunday looking for her spiritual family and ended up finding her physical family as well.

“It’s gratifying to see how we impact someone’s life,” the rabbi reflects. “You can touch so many people so deeply, and you’ll never even know the tip of the iceberg.”

‘A Higher Plane’

Rabbi Nachman Simon of the Chabad House of Delmar in Upstate New York, who has been hosting “The Jewish View” since 1987, agrees. “I see clearly how my cable show has a direct connection to my Chabad House. I can mention an event on the show, and people I never met will come as a result,” he says.

Rabbi Nachman Simon, right, of the Chabad House of Delmar in Upstate New York, has been hosting “The Jewish View” on cable TV since 1987. Next to him is co-host Marc Gronich of Statewide News Service.
Rabbi Nachman Simon, right, of the Chabad House of Delmar in Upstate New York, has been hosting “The Jewish View” on cable TV since 1987. Next to him is co-host Marc Gronich of Statewide News Service.

Since joining up with co-host Marc Gronich, Simon says his show has taken on a decidedly political flavor, with many appearances from many elected officials and public servants from the nearby state capital. Yet he makes sure to remain true to his original purpose: “Making sure that people are aware of Jewish practices and teachings, and what it means to them in the light of Chassidism.”

Perhaps Chassidic teachings come through the clearest in the Ontario, Canada-based “Messages” program, where host Michael Kigel would often invite a panel of rabbis and rebbitzens to discuss issues in the light of chassidus, often after viewing a video of the Rebbe discussing that very issue.

The program was born in 2002, when Chabad of Ontario suggested that Kigel run a special program in honor of the 100th year since the Rebbe’s birth on his program, “Passages.”

“I had Chabad representatives on the show before,” explains Kigel, “and I always enjoyed it because they were well-spoken, happy to share and didn’t charge. But this was going to be something different. I wanted to do a show exclusively featuring the Rebbe’s teachings.”

He notes that Rabbi Moshe Spalter, administrator of the Chabad Lubavitch Community Center in Thornhill, Ontario, dropped off a stack of videos of the Rebbe speaking for him to watch.

Michael Kigel, left, and Rabbi Moshe Spalter, of the Chabad Lubavitch Community Center in Thornhill, Ontario, have worked together on several Jewish-themed programs.
Michael Kigel, left, and Rabbi Moshe Spalter, of the Chabad Lubavitch Community Center in Thornhill, Ontario, have worked together on several Jewish-themed programs.

“I popped in the first one and within five minutes, I broke down crying and had to stop watching,” recalls Kigel. “It was such a powerful experience for me. I had never seen someone so forceful and unapologetic about Judaism before. For two weeks, I got so engrossed in the material and then interviewing the shluchim[Chabad emissaries] that I was in some sort of manic state—obsessing over the fact that such a unique human being could exist.”

After the show aired, Spalter and Kigel decided to make it into a regular half-hour feature. For three years, it was complimented by a five-minute segment called “The Deed,” which offered a friendly, practical guide to Jewish holidays, life-cycle events and other observances.

The fruits of the program were apparent immediately.

“Within the first week or two that the show aired,” Spalter explains, “I was in a part of town where I rarely find myself. I decided to look up an acquaintance of mine who owns a gym. It turned out that he was not there, and I was about to leave.

“Suddenly, the girl working there says, ‘Rabbi Spalter? You don’t know me, but I need to talk to you. I’ve been working on converting to Judaism for a while, and things have become difficult and I was thinking of giving up. The other night, you showed a video of the Rebbe talking about how challenges help take us to a higher plane than we would have achieved on our own. Then you elaborated on it, and you said exactly what I needed to hear. I told myself that I wanted to meet you, and here you are!’ ”

Today, the young woman is the proud mother of a large Jewish family and directs programming for a local Jewish-outreach organization.

As for Kigel, he says the seven years that he produced the show were radically transformative for him, as viewing and dissecting the Rebbe’s teachings prodded him toward becoming a full-fledged Chabad Chassid.

“I find it lamentable how many educated Jewish people are not aware of the deep, thoughtful underpinnings of Chabad,” he says, “and I feel that the show—which still airs as reruns regularly—affords them the same opportunity that it gave me.”

Katzman speaks with yeshivah students who traveled during Passover and over the summer to visit and offer assistance to Chabad centers in India, Ukraine and Siberia. From left are Mendy Wilansky, Noach Majesky and Arele Teleshevsky.
Katzman speaks with yeshivah students who traveled during Passover and over the summer to visit and offer assistance to Chabad centers in India, Ukraine and Siberia. From left are Mendy Wilansky, Noach Majesky and Arele Teleshevsky.
Mark Langfen, right, uses a three-dimensional display on Katzman's show to discuss water issues in Israel.
Mark Langfen, right, uses a three-dimensional display on Katzman's show to discuss water issues in Israel.