For Rabbi Chaim Lazaroff of Houston, Texas, the kitchen is his happy place. That's why, when he was asked to share a few Passover recipes on FOX 26 Houston, his local news station, he jumped at the opportunity. "If I could, I would cook all day," says the rabbi, who is also the co-director of Chabad of Uptown, a community center for Jewish people.
Every Jewish holiday has its food. At Hanukkah, it's latkes or doughnuts. For Rosh Hashanah, it's apples and honey. On Passover, it's matzo, the bitter herb or charoset — a mixture of apples, cinnamon, walnuts and wine (if you're Ashkenazi like me). Whichever holiday or recipe, chances are you'll find an Orthodox Jew whipping it up on their local TV news station thanks to Chabad.org, a website promoting Judaism that last year saw over 50 million unique visitors.
Rabbi Lazaroff doesn't own a television, but his on-air outreach is an important component of the Chabad-Lubavitch movement — an international Jewish organization with 3,500 religious, educational and social service institutions in 100 countries.
"We are in the business to promote Judaism in a way that is accessible, fun and educational," says Lazaroff, who hopes his unexpected foodie efforts will equal more engaged Jews. "If I can inspire one person to light the candles, it's worth one night of non-sleep."
The person that many point to as the flame for this philosophy is Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, referred to simply as "the Rebbe." At the core of the Rebbe's teachings is that every individual is important, and that rituals — lighting the candles before Shabbat dinner, eating the matzo at Passover — have extreme importance. Outreach on holidays is done is to promote Jewish engagement in the faith. That philosophy is what drives Chabad representatives to invite strangers into their home for Shabbat dinners — and to appear on television.
Use of the local news reaches back to 1954, when the Rebbe launched a Passover campaign as a worldwide initiative to promote greater observance of the holiday. The creative twist here is that in 2018, Chabad must innovate. That means turning to television — even though these Orthodox Jews are selective in what they watch. Using this medium, seeing a rabbi on screen, is a pleasant surprise for everyone. "It's a great opportunity to break the stereotypes," says Rabbi Lazaroff.
"The aim is to educate the Jewish community, particularly those that may not enter a synagogue or attend a Seder, along with the general public," says Chaim Landa, the associate director of media relations at Chabad.org. Landa's job is to get exposure for the organization in all forms of media, because while every individual counts, the more, the better. "It's always about sharing with others, and the responsibility we have for our fellow Jews," says Landa.
In the four years since Chabad launched its cooking segment initiative, Landa and the media team have placed nearly 450 spots in 43 media markets. With 1,000 Chabad-Lubavitch centers in North America, including all 50 U.S. states, their resources are many and the communities are widespread and diverse.
Last week, Dena Schusterman of Atlanta, Ga., "starred" on WSB-TV when her husband, a rabbi, got an email from the Chabad.org media team. Did she want to appear on the morning news? She had never done it before, but she wrote back: "Sure." In a personal pep talk to calm her jitters, she told herself: "Listen, I am not going to think of this as a big deal. I am not going to make myself crazy."
Unlike most segments, which are recorded in the news studio, the one-minute and-40-second spot was taped in her own kitchen. The mother of eight enlisted five of her kids to help with the charoset (they chopped apples), and then she combed her sheitel (a wig worn for religious modesty) and smiled for the camera.
The spot aired early last Saturday morning, but Schusterman will have to wait for the producer to email her a link to watch because, like other members of the Chabad-Lubavitch sect, her observance of the Sabbath means she won't be online or using her phone or even driving; and if she misses seeing it, that's OK, too. Coincidentally, her neighbor, a Buddhist monk, caught her debut and came by to let her know how much he enjoyed it. "It's so cool," she said. "People who normally wouldn't go to class or a Seder are flipping through TV and they're going to learn something."
In the spot, Schusterman, also the education director of Chabad Intown, taught the viewers that everything done on Passover has a reason. The symbolic meaning behind charoset was that there are purposefully no measurements in the recipe. "Although many things come in measurements," she relayed to the audience, "this essential freedom is immeasurable, infinite, and uncontainable."
For some, these cooking segments can feel like trial by fire. When Rabbi Avremi Zippel, the program director at Chabad Lubavitch of Utah, got the invitation to appear on his local station, he turned to his wife, who is a great cook, and said, "We should do this." The new mother quickly said no when she learned the segment would be at 6:15 a.m. That left the rabbi in charge. "It forced me to confront some of my anxieties," he says, referring to his non-existent cooking skills.
The Chabad media team gave the rabbi pointers: how to balance looking at the host and the camera and how to have to have all the ingredients properly laid out. "I was a little hesitant, but I discovered the tremendous impact it had," he says. This year, his fourth, the rabbi made chrein, a horseradish and beet mixture that symbolizes the bitter conditions the ancient Jews were subjected to in Egypt.
Landa says these TV spots aren't just about publicity for Chabad – they're also a mitzvah, a good deed, because they directly support the Rebbe's mission. The Chabad emissaries who are delivering handmade matzo (called Shmurah matzo) to people who don't have it or offering holiday lessons via the television are answering the Rebbe's call to reach every Jew.
In return, Chabad members hear anecdotal stories of how their efforts were met, and it's all the payment they need. "They're watching TV, and there's the morning show and a Chabad member and they're speaking of the message and the holiday. All of sudden it's: Wow!," he says. "We hear about those moments."
Consider Courtney Zavala, the co-host of Houston Life, a daily program on KPRC. "It didn't surprise me by any stretch to have the Jewish faith and traditions included in our show," says Zavala. "It's something we should shine a light on –– how they celebrate their specific holidays."
For Zavala, the TV segment was also a learning experience. Even though she was told beforehand that Rabbi Lazaroff couldn't shake her hand, out of habit she reached out. "He said, 'I don't mean to offend you but I only shake the hand of my wife,'" she recalls. "I'm sure that wasn't the first time he had to say that to anyone."
While many think of religion as a stuffy, outdated system of beliefs, these Jews are out there throwing donuts in hot oil, chopping apples and braiding challah in hopes of connecting with the camera and the viewers beyond to show us that food isn't just something to Instagram — it's a deeper connection to history.
And for Chabad, it's a constant search for new ways to engage. TV becoming a little passé? No problem. When Rabbi Zippel meets people in town, they are often taken aback by his requests to connect online. "I ask if I can hook up with them on social media and they are, 'Rabbi? You're on social media?'"
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