How to pull a media rabbi out of a hat: Leftie vicars are out; Lionel Blue and Hugo Gryn are in, says Jack Shamash

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The Independent Online
One type of broadcaster seems to be increasingly in demand - rabbis are emerging from their synagogues and finding themselves at the centre of attention on radio and television. They have become high-profile sages of the airwaves, pronouncing on everything from juvenile delinquency to Serbian politics.

Their fans regard them as a moral voice, bringing humanity to a secular wilderness. To their critics they are self-important people who package their religion and sell it like soap powder, cultivating their media image to the detriment of pastoral work.

The Chief Rabbi, Dr Jonathan Sacks, and his predecessor, Lord Jakobovits, have become household names. In 1986 Rabbi Julia Neuberger became a star when she was picked to front Choices on BBC 1. Last year Rabbi Lionel Blue presented his own television series. Rabbi Hugo Gryn has for three years been exploring The Moral Maze, which recently transferred from Radio 4 to television.

Radio spots such as Thought for the Day and Pause for Thought, which used to be dominated by vicars, now seem to feature rabbis almost as often as Christian clerics. Church of England clergy are out of favour, seen as left-wing and spiritually flaky.

Jon Kaye, a radio producer and presenter who works with Jewish organisations, says media demand for rabbis is growing. 'We live in a multicultural society. Producers want representatives of non-Christian religions. People - including the government - are turning more and more to religion. And producers are looking for religious perspectives.'

Rabbi Jonathan Romain, a regular on chat shows, feels that the changing nature of Britain has thrust rabbis into the limelight. 'We are the most articulate presenters of non-Christian faith. A lot of Hindus and Muslims would appear, but they don't trust the media or they don't speak good enough English.'

The rise of the media rabbis would have been unthinkable even 10 years ago. The change has been led by Lord Jakobovits and Rabbi Blue. 'The elevation of Lord Jakobovits to the peerage was an important statement,' says Rabbi Romain. 'It made clear to everyone that rabbis were not just odd bods, but an integral part of the Jewish establishment.'

Rabbi Blue has achieved something more subtle. He appeals to ordinary people with his understanding of suffering and everyday problems. Last year he made a six-part series, In Search of Holy England, in which he described his own quest for spirituality, beginning in a Quaker meeting house and ending with his rediscovery of his Jewish roots.

'I talk about the bits of Judaism which Jews don't rate very highly. It's a sort of kitchen spirituality,' he says. 'The appeal of rabbis is that they're prepared to admit their own fallibility and admit they don't know all the answers. Christians often start with the idea that the country is entirely Christian and that there is a shared theology.'

Rabbi Gryn is often called upon to speak as an Auschwitz survivor. Most of his family perished in camps and there is an obvious interest in someone who has stared so closely into the jaws of death.

The Chief Rabbi gives Jewish New Year broadcasts in September and a Chanukah message each December as a counterweight to Christmas material. Dr Sacks has proved immensely popular, although critics say that with his mellifluous style and permanent smile, he is growing more like an old-style C of E vicar.

The Rev Ernest Rea, head of BBC religious broadcasting, is a keen supporter of the media rabbis: 'Lionel Blue is the most popular contributor to Thought for the Day. He is genuinely loved. I would use Rabbi Sacks far more if he wasn't too busy. I admire Hugo Gryn immensely: he is so patently a good human being.'

Rabbinical seminaries - both orthodox and progressive - now teach broadcasting skills. Mr Kaye gives regular courses: 'I want them to think carefully about what they're going to say and not get bogged down with statistics. I also want them to remember that they're not thundering from the pulpit. They have to speak softly and be aware that they're speaking to a mainly non-Jewish audience.'

Rabbis enjoy this attention. Rabbi Alan Plancey, of Borehamwood, Hertfordshire, says: 'I've done The Time, the Place, Kilroy, a Panorama special and I got to be quite a regular on breakfast TV. I never refuse - I love the adrenaline buzz of live television.'

There are drawbacks, as Rabbi Blue admits: 'I get love mail, hate mail and occasionally smutty letters. I get people saying that I'm responsible for bringing Asians to Wolverhampton. I get stopped in the streets - usually very pleasantly. It's a bit like being a congregational minister, although with a bigger congregation.' The small payments he receives have not made him rich - but the broadcasts do help to sell his books.

(Photograph omitted)