Back in 2015 Oliver Anisfeld was an undergraduate reading history at University College, London. Had he chosen, he could have had an assured future in the old-established family firm, H Forman and Son, headed by his father, the great grandson of its founder. At one time, when London’s East End was home to hundreds of thousands of Jewish immigrants from eastern Europe, you had only to mention the name Forman, and everyone knew you were talking smoked salmon. By 2015 the firm had expanded into an impressive nationwide enterprise with headquarters in the aptly named Fish Island, an area of east London adjacent to the River Lea.
However, the heir presumptive to the Forman enterprise had other ideas. Concerned at what he saw as apathy among young Jews about their Jewish identity, he dreamed a dream. He conceived the idea of a new, high quality, online global Jewish media channel – a rich and vibrant source of information, thought, discussion and interchange about issues of concern to Jews the world over. A source like this would have young Jews particularly in mind. It would aim to inculcate, sustain and enrich their awareness of their cultural heritage.
Ideas are 10 a penny; it takes special qualities of imagination, persistence and chutzpah to bring one to fruition. These qualities Ollie Anisfeld possesses in abundance. He set his sights on enlisting the help of the eminent Jewish peer, Lord Kestenbaum, to help with the birth of his enterprise. Jonathan Kestenbaum, once head of chief rabbi Jonathan Sacks’s office, and later chief executive of the United Jewish Israel Appeal, was known for his extensive involvement in education.
“Tell him to leave a message,” was Kestenbaum’s first reaction, when told that a young student was asking for an interview.
“No,” Anisfeld told his secretary. “I want to talk to him.”
“Tell him to send an email,” said Kestenbaum.
But Anisfeld refused to be palmed off. Finally Kestenbaum, impressed with his persistence, agreed to see him.
“When he told me his idea,” Kestenbaum later admitted, “I was hooked.”
Less than a year later J-TV was launched at a prestigious reception held at Portcullis House, adjacent to the Houses of Parliament. At the ripe old age of 22, Ollie Anisfeld had become a new Jewish media mogul.
With the aim of disseminating Jewish ideas of global relevance, J-TV posts all sorts of video podcasts across a range of subjects of Jewish interest each week. Subject headings include, amongst others, current affairs, Jewish wisdom. Jewish philosophy, entertainment, mental health, modern and ancient Jewish history. Over the years Anisfeld has brought scores of politicians, academics, religious leaders, and thinkers to his studio to air their views or to be cross-questioned about them. J-TV has never flinched from controversy, challenging personalities such as Norman Finkelstein, Baroness Tonge, Ben Shapiro and Shami Chakrabati to justify positions they had taken on issues of Jewish concern.
Anisfeld says that over the years he has learned some of the techniques necessary to grab and hold a social media audience. A video must be fast-moving, but it should appeal as much to the emotions as to the eye. To hold the attention it needs to be slick and graphic. Above all, it must be entertaining. I asked Anisfeld for an example, and he quoted J-TV’s Purim fest of a few years back, when he engaged a professional Donald Trump impersonator. It proved to be an outstandingly popular video.
Over the five years of its existence J-TV has built up a regular global audience of some 250,000, though some videos have registered a million or more viewings. The channel finds its largest audience in the US, with the UK a good second, followed by Israel, South Africa, Canada and Australia.
J-TV is an online video streaming channel, using YouTube as its main platform. I asked Anisfeld whether he had been tempted to provide a fully-fledged television service, but he said that he had favored the internet and popular social media from the start – he’d had no desire to launch his own website to carry his content.
His idea was to make access for his audience as easy as possible, and he believes that on-line provision from the well-established social media platforms is the key to reaching the younger audience who are his main target. Being streamed online, J-TV can be watched anywhere and at any time.
Anisfeld has succeeded in extending his audience to include a fair proportion of non-Jews – some 30 percent is his estimate. One ambition is, while expanding his existing devotees, to reach out to a non-Jewish audience and engage their interest. He believes that the current upsurge of antisemitism in the West is based in fair measure on lack of knowledge and frank misapprehensions about Jews and Judaism. In particular, he believes that some of the social pressure placed on university Jewish societies, on both American and British campuses, could be countered by the dissemination of well-based media content aimed at people who are open to reason.
In this aim, Anisfeld told me, he would welcome input from people willing to contribute to his growing operation. He wants to encourage creative video material and genuine emotional involvement with J-TV. The enterprise has a long way to travel. Ollie Anisfeld is seeking help to achieve its worthy ideals.
When we were last in touch, he had this to say: “You said I didn’t go into the salmon business, but I would beg to differ. The salmon is unique in that it swims upstream, against the tide, and that’s what I’ve been trying to do every single day.”■