From Good Morning America to the Tefillin Challenge

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17 Nov 2005

How does one journey as a secular Jew and a producer for ABC’s “Good Morning America” — from attending White House Christmas parties and walking the sands of Saudi Arabia, to attending morning minyans (prayer services) at an Orthodox shul (synagogue) in Washington, D.C.? The short answer is, with a great deal of difficulty and many unforeseen pit stops along the way. I was a secular Jew who was a liberal activist during the days of Bob Dylan and anti-war rallies. We called it the “Age of Aquarius.” We were about to re-make mankind. My generation trashed institutions. We rejected rules and laws. We believed we could re-write history. We could revise the history of civilization itself. Among the casualties was religion. We were particularly strident in our condemnation of organized religion. It felt good to be “liberated;” which meant we thought we could flee from our past.

I joined this traveling band with great gusto. I was an anti-war activist, worked for Ralph Nader and founded a public relations firm in Washington, DC.

My friends in the media shared my values and world outlook too. In 1988 I was invited to be the Washington producer for ABC’s “Good Morning America.” It was a pretty thrilling life.

I was invited to private Washington dinners, rubbed elbows with the powerful and famous. I personally met every President from Gerald Ford to Bill Clinton and was able to discuss issues with world leaders like Margaret Thatcher and Arial Sharon. As the White House and Pentagon producer, I had a front row on history. I traveled on Presidential trips and covered civil unrest and armed conflict. I was held at gun point during an attempted coup in Panama, arrived at the scene of airplane crashes, reported on space flights from Cape Canaveral, covered a G-7 Summit in Tokyo and produced a special from an anti-terrorism summit in Sharme El Sheik, Egypt. I was in Nicaragua when the Sandinistas fell and lived in Hong Kong prior to the handover to China.

One of my proudest moments was to produce a live, five hour ABC special from Normandy, France commemorating the 50th anniversary of D-Day. I conducted nearly a hundred interviews with World War II military leaders and D-Day veterans, including a Nazi General who headed the Panzer tank division closest to the Allied landing in Normandy. The two of us sat, feet apart, as we quietly discussed the war and the invasion, as if we were simply colleagues. A half a century earlier, he would have executed me.

I remember standing on a beach in Normandy at the American Cemetery on June 6, 1994. I remember being struck by the tombstones especially that had the Star of David on them. Many were teenagers 18 to 20 years old. Throughout this period, however, I kept my Jewish identity pretty well under wraps. I received Christmas cards from friends, was invited to holiday parties in December and even attended a few White House Christmas parties.

I married a woman who was Episcopalian. Her father was a Deacon in a small church in Danville, Virginia. My Judaism was in the closet, and the door was firmly shut. Nevertheless, there was this tug of the arm. Despite a fulfilling job, a successful career, many friends and a comfortable life, I felt something was missing. I and a few friends began a clumsy, somewhat counter culture search for what we called “spirituality.” Spirituality does not have a Jewish face in America. In fact, it isn’t associated with any established Western religion. A few of my friends joined Buddhist temples. Others dabbled in New Age stuff. I once held a retreat for New Age leaders at my home. Still others sought out what they called “ancient voices” and bonded with Native American Indians. For all, the journey seemed to be one part Kumbaya, one part self-indulgence and one part mystery.

While on this journey I found myself one evening on an upstate New York estate owned by a wealthy businessman who said he had discovered the “spirits” of Native American Indians. I was invited through a friend. It was a sprawling estate. On it, the owner had erected two giant Indian teepees. In the evening a bonfire was lit and we chanted obscure Indian songs, holding hands under the starlit skies. It may have worked for others. But it left me cold. The evening seemed contrived. After all, none of us were of Indian heritage. It was a total disconnect. It was there, on that estate that I finally stated the obvious. “Hey, I’m Jewish, not a Cherokee, Lakota or Hupa Indian.” My tribes weren’t on the North American plain. They were in Jerusalem, near the Jordan River.

And as I began to reflect on it, I realized that my religion had its own “ancient voices,” among the most ancient and wisest of all time. They had names like Abraham and Isaac, Ruth and Esther, Moses and David. In terms of modern marketing, these spiritual leaders could be considered a bust. They didn’t exude the exoticism of the East or the newness of Shamans or channeling. They were part of our “ugly” Western history. They were part of a past I and my colleagues were supposed to be fleeing. I had ignored Judaism since my Bar Mitzvah. Nevertheless, now it seemed to intrigue me. Maybe the distance of time allowed me to re-discover my own roots.

About the same time, I was asked to be a producer for a Good Morning America special in Saudi Arabia. It was the beginning of the First Gulf War. I would lead a crew of 15 people, including GMA host Charlie Gibson. Getting the visas was not easy. At the time, Western media had never been permitted inside the Saudi Kingdom. To secure the visas I had to socialize with senior Saudi officials. We became friends. I was invited to request a visa. As I reviewed the Saudi application I found there was a line for religion. In my life, I had never been asked to identify my religion. Something rattled inside this closet Jew.

It didn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that if I revealed my religion, I would be barred from entering the country. What was I to do?

I consulted with Jack Reilly, my executive producer in New York, and we agreed that the entire team should leave the religion line blank. Just to make sure, he consulted ABC News President Roone Arledge. He too supported the move.

I returned to the Embassy with the visa applications, sans any religious identification. It was the first time in my life that I had to think about my place in the world as a Jew. My cage rattled a bit more. The Saudis were not very pleased with our incomplete application. There was discussion, tension and debate, but after numerous meetings, the Embassy approved our visas. Practicality had won out. The Saudis needed American television coverage more than the knowledge of our religion.

Since I was going to the Middle East, I decided I would visit Israel. However, this wasn’t easy. I was privately counseled by ABC News that if I wished to travel there I needed to obtain a second American passport. An Israeli entry visa would bar me from travel throughout much of the world and virtually all of the Middle East. Again, it was a reminder of my place in the world as a Jew. More rattling. I obtained a “sanitized” American passport exclusively for travel to Israel. I left for Saudi Arabia where I spent several months covering Operation Desert Shield. Let me assure you, it was not a picnic. We were in a war zone. We were in a Muslim country. And now I was living there secretly as a Jew. The closet door closed tighter.

But there were also some surprises. During my stay I was able – as an ABC producer, not as a Jew — to discuss Middle East politics with Arabs. It was then that I learned that most Arab elites privately despise the Palestinians. I will put it as politely as I can: they considered them shiftless, lazy, corrupt and hopelessly, always on the wrong side of history. (At the time the Palestinians supported Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait.) Curiously, many of them also expressed private admiration for Israel. When I went to Israel, gas masks and sealed rooms were the order of the day. U.S. Patriot missiles protected the skies from incoming missiles. Yet the majesty and spiritual pull of Israel was overwhelming. It was as if I had returned home.

A few years ago I got another glimpse of what it means to be a Jew in today’s world. I was in Caracas, Venezuela, working for an employer. As it turned out, I had to stay in the country during High Holidays. A colleague introduced me to a Jewish family who welcomed me into their home and secured a ticket for High Holidays at Union Synagogue, an Orthodox synagogue in Caracas.

Because I was an American, I was invited to a number of Jewish homes for dinners. During each dinner, the same conversation came up. Gen. Hugo Chavez, Venezuela’s President had made numerous veiled threats to the Jewish community during his last election campaign. The conversations among the Venezuelans at these dinners were all the same and went something like this, usually in hushed tones: Have you gotten your children out of the country? Where are you going to live? Which country looks good to you? Are you moving your money to the United States? When will you put your home up for sale?

The conversation could have been the conversations that might have taken place around German Jewish dinner tables in the early Thirties. You could see the fear and concern in the faces and eyes of these Venezuelan Jews. Hell had not yet arrived, but you could see it from here. I needed to find my own place as a Jew. Who was I? What was my past? So in 2002 I began to go shul shopping. I had divorced my Episcopalian wife and was now married to a Jewish woman. Well Shul shopping isn’t what it’s cracked up to be. It isn’t an easy journey, especially if you want to find commitment. There is a confusing array of Jewish flavors out there.

Among other things, my Age of Aquarius brethren have re-shaped a good deal of organized Judaism with a lot of politically correct stuff that has watered it down. I remember once attending an open house at a reform temple. The shul’s president was very pleased to announce that men did not have to wear a Kippa (skullcap) or Tallit (prayer shawl) at Sabbath services. He considered this a very strong selling point. Perhaps. But for me it sent a clear message that even the simplest rules were too much of a burden for this congregation. Commitment phobia was no longer my problem. I finally joined a Conservative synagogue and asked the Rabbi if he would take the time to show me how to wear Tefillin. His response was somewhat disappointing.

He recommended I buy a book, and if I had any other questions to call him. He might as well have said, “Take two aspirin and call me in the morning.” Still, lives in contemporary Jewish shuls don’t exude much spirituality. It is a sanitized service that wishes to neither excite nor offend. Then I stumbled upon a modern Orthodox synagogue, Ohev Shalom Talmud Torah or OSTT in Washington, DC. The Rabbi there, Shmuel Herzfeld says there are few coincidences in life. He may be right. I had been rebuffed by a Rabbi on the question of Tefillin. And at my first OSTT Kiddush, the Rabbi asked me if I would like to enter the Tefillin Challenge. The gist of the challenge was that if I attended 30 out of 60 morning services, I would receive a free Tefillin. Oh yes, and “instructions were included.” The Rabbi and many members of the congregation warmly helped me get it right. In some ways, I agreed to do it, as it was a challenge. And I did learn more about the morning services and how to wear the Tefillin. But as I Davened (prayed) each morning, I found a subtle change came over me. Now I started each day differently. I was no longer thinking about the bills, or work, or the latest sports scores. Instead, I found myself beginning every day in a beautiful way. Instead of the mundane, every morning I focus on the important things in life. And shorn of political correctness, modern Orthodoxy touches on the miracle of life, from the miracle of our Torah to daily prayers.

Now every morning I remind myself of eternity:

“Master of the universe, Who reigned before any form was created.”

I ask Hashem for wisdom and insight:

“For Your wisdom, O supreme God, may You imbue me; from Your understanding gives me understanding…”

I am reminded every morning of the spirit of our soul:

“My God, the soul You placed within me is pure. You created it. You fashioned it. You breathed it into me…As long as the soul is within me, I am grateful to You, Hashem, my God and the God of my forefathers, Master of all works, Lord of all souls.”

I am in awe of the miracle of each dawn:

“Blessed are You, Hashem, our God, King of the universe, Who gave the heart understanding to distinguish between day and night.”

And every morning, I am reminded of the miracle of life itself:

“We shall thank You…for Your miracles that are with us every day; and for your wonders and favors in every season – evening, morning and afternoon.”

For me, each morning – each day – has become a miracle unto itself.

I met the Tefillin Challenge and got a new pair of Tefillin and I’m a member of a new shul. But a committed Jewish experience has given me something much more vital: the meaning of life itself.

Richard Pollock is a former television producer. He is the president of Next Generation Advertising, LLC, in Washington, D.C., which produces video, audio and animation for use on the Internet.

The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.