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Jewish wisdom for the masses

Rabbi Irwin Kula, president of the National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership (CLAL). (CLAL)

Rabbi Irwin Kula, president of the National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership (CLAL). (CLAL)

NEW YORK, April 22 (JTA) — To Rabbi Irwin Kula, Jewish outreach means reaching way, way out. Kula, president of the New York-based National Center for Learning and Leadership, or CLAL, is hosting a new PBS-TV series called “Simple Wisdom” that is taking Torah into America’s living rooms. The 13-part series, which began airing in some cities nationally this month, uses Jewish sources to tackle universal issues from careers and money to body image and sex. Each half-hour episode features Kula before a studio audience applying Old Testament lessons to modern dilemmas, following the stylistic footsteps of such TV gurus as Dr. Wayne Dyer or Deepak Chopra. Yet while Jews so often preach only to other Jews, Kula says, he aims to “synthesize” Jewish thinking for a broader audience. “The whole goal is to bring Jewish wisdom to the public square without it being about Jewish identity and building Jewish identity,” Kula says. “I had to grapple with how does this wisdom help us be human, as opposed to Jewish.” That’s a crucial step for Jews to take, he says. America’s freedom changes its peoples, Kula says, and “unless you can speak in the public square, you will always be a relatively insignificant player.” Furthermore, he adds, “I don’t think the Jewish dream was to only speak to Jews and worry if the Jews are Jewish.” “It was to make profound contributions to our understanding of what it means to be human.” The genesis for Kula’s new mission formed as he began attending conferences for general audiences as the head of CLAL, a Jewish leadership training institute and think tank. Gradually, Kula learned he needed to “translate Jewish wisdom into a language for a general audience,” he says. With that understanding, he realized that “this wisdom can stand on its own in the American marketplace of ideas.” His realization hit as Judaism was going chic. Madonna was attending the Kabbalah Center in Los Angeles and the 20-somethings of “Generation J” were publishing magazines such as “Heeb” in New York. Kula thought TV would be the ideal medium to beam Jewish ideas to the masses. Jay Sanderson, whose Jewish Television Network in Sherman Oaks, Calif., gets picked up by some 70 PBS affiliates nationally, agreed, and he launched the project this spring. The JTN produced the shows on a relative shoestring of about $275,000, Kula says, and it taped the shows in rapid, one-take sessions this spring. Episode one, called “Who Am I?”, says we amount to far more than we imagine, while the second episode talks of how the depth of our relationships with others gives our lives meaning. One show, discussing the topic of death, talks of how the Torah says remembering and mourning are tied to the four seasons, while another on the family uses the story of Genesis to show how it’s the “messiness” of family that makes it sacred, Kula says. “In every show, people come away with at least one insight, one practice or one piece of wisdom,” Kula says, that will, people hope, improve their lives. The rabbi also hopes that this relatively modest project will make a big impact on the wider world. “There’s something funny about spending $2 billion on Jewish education, yet there’s not one interesting Jewish message on TV,” he says. “Simple Wisdom” began airing on such PBS outlets as Cincinnati, Charlotte, N.C., and Philadelphia this month, and will begin running in San Francisco next week. Next month it will run on PBS stations in Denver and New York, as well as Connecticut, Kentucky and Hawaii, among other TV markets. □

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