America to welcome Jewish-themed cable [pg. 24]

First there was the Kinky Friedman documentary Shalom Y'All, and now there's Rabbi Mark S. Golub's Shalom TV. On August 30, Golub will launch America's first national television channel dedicated to celebrating Jewish life and culture. The channel will initially be available as an on-demand network costing subscribers $7.99 monthly and will present 50 hours of programming weekly only to those living in southeastern Pennsylvania and northern Delaware. The aim, however, is eventually to expand to the entire continental US, Golub says. The president and CEO of the privately funded Shalom TV, Golub has been involved in broadcasting in one form or another since the early 1970s, following his ordination at Hebrew Union College's Jewish Institute of Religion in New York. Golub has a background in talk radio, has taught in the City College of New York Jewish studies department and created the Russian Television Network of America (RTN) in 1991. Speaking by phone from his network's New Jersey offices, Golub decries what he sees as an inordinate lack of meaningful, educational and entertaining Jewish-oriented programs in the US. Shalom TV, he says, has been "a personal dream of mine for years. It's a stunning fact that there is a total vacuum on major American television. There's no place where a Jewish family can sit a child down to [watch] lovely Jewish programming; there's no voice for Israel where you can see an Israeli film or a news-oriented program that reflects the Israeli perspective." To bridge the gap, Golub says Shalom TV will provide programming for mainstream American Jewry "that addresses the spectrum of Jewish life and Jewish culture." Golub oversees a staff of 40 at the shared headquarters of RTN and Shalom TV in Fort Lee, New Jersey. The channels maintain additional offices in Brooklyn, Chicago, San Francisco, Los Angeles and Boston and have an array of programming already lined up. Golub says the term "Jewish television programming" might not be the best one to describe his network. "We emphasize that the channel celebrates Jewish culture and not specifically Jewish tradition," he explains. "This is not 50 hours of rabbis talking about how to make a tallit. While we have some religious programming, such as a series on Kabbala, this is not a religious show. It celebrates the panorama of Jewish life." (The Kabbala show, he quips, "is not Madonna Kabbala.") Some of the channel's religious programming includes the study of Talmud study and other religious texts. However, there will also be programming including movies, news, children's shows, cooking series and even coverage of the Israel Baseball League. The network will also air L'Chayim, a series Golub began as a radio program in 1979, in which he'll interview prominent Jewish leaders, rabbis, artists, newsmakers and historians. Golub recalls interviewing some of the "greats" on pre-TV installments of the show, including Elie Wiesel, Chaim Potok and Joseph Heller. Golub says that he's not the first person in the United States to bandy about the idea of creating a Jewish television network, but he's the first who's really been able to put the idea into practice. He credits his experience setting up RTN with giving him the tools he's needed to create Shalom TV. "I have the know-how and an existing infrastructure. I know what it is to do small budget ethnic television," he says. "With RTN, we have created the most successful ethnic channel in the USA outside of Spanish language programming." But the question remains, are subscribers willing to pay for Shalom TV? "I'm really surprised at the degree to which people are excited by [Shalom TV]," Golub says. "However, I'm not na ve," he jokes. "At this point the only people who want to watch it are those people who want to pay, and I know that's not a Jewish model!" Still, he remains undaunted, arguing that his audience by and large is sophisticated and sufficiently well-off to pay for the channel. "It's not that they can't afford it, it's just that they are not going to pay for something that they think is nonsense," he says. Golub believes he can create the right balance of programming to ensure that Jews will want Shalom TV in their homes - as will evangelical Christians who have become a huge source of support for the Jewish people, Israel and all things Jewish, he says. Golub also emphasizes that Shalom TV is not affiliated with any particular institution or movement within Judaism. "We do not have a party line," he says. Golub says the channel will include segments on Israel and that he has camera crews ready to work in the Holy Land. "We are interested in anyone in Israel who wants to share their programming with us," he says. Golub plans to conduct on-air interviews himself with notable Israeli politicians and public figures from his Fort Lee studios to allow Israel to get its message across to US audiences, he says. However, aside from showing Israeli films with English subtitles, the TV chief says that at this stage there are no plans to broadcast Hebrew-language programs. "It would be silly of me to exclude any group that is a potential subscriber," Golub says of the large expatriate Israeli community living in the US. "But there is already Hebrew language television through the DISH Network [a US satellite TV provider] so I don't know that Shalom TV will be their channel of choice." Nonetheless, Golub says he hopes to attract the US-born children of Israelis as viewers for his network. "There are many Israelis who come here and marry Americans, and then their children don't speak Hebrew. Those kids may well watch Shalom TV, and then our programming might become as meaningful to [their parents] as it is to them and other American Jews," he says.