A refreshing new podcast series was recently launched by Tachlis Media, a division of the Orthodox Union. The goal of “Saturday to Shabbos” is to share inspiring Jewish journeys from a range of individuals who have made the transition from non-observant to observant. It is a fascinating exploration that is upfront and personal, as it delves into the lives of each guest, including their upbringing, choice of career, the impetus for their transition into Orthodoxy, the challenges and triumphs they have experienced, and how the journey has transformed them. The podcast’s inaugural guest was Jamie Geller, founder of the popular “Joy of Kosher” food and recipe website.
The host of the series is Jeff Cohen, a Bergen County resident and former president of Shomrei Torah from 2017 to 2020. Cohen is a seasoned human-resources consultant and executive coach who has written several books related to his field. A baal teshuva himself, Cohen took on his shul’s presidency just four years after moving to Fair Lawn. He served during a critical period when Rabbi Benjamin Yudin transitioned into rabbi emeritus status after 50 years leading the congregation and while the shul underwent a renovation.
Cohen spoke with The Jewish Link about the podcast and his passion for its topic. He began by explaining its title. “When I was growing up, the day after Friday was called Saturday. Among the many changes I made in my personal life—eating kosher, moving to a Jewish community, sending my kids to yeshiva—was switching from using the word ‘Saturday’ to ‘Shabbos’.”
Series executive producer Rabbi David Pardo rhetorically asked, “Why do people who choose to become frum do it? When Jeff started exploring this idea, I was immediately intrigued because no one has done this before. With baalei teshuva, we often talk about the what, but rarely about the why and the how. This is an incredible project that has the power to touch hearts and minds.”
Ari Greene, director of development for New York NCSY, added: “Jeff’s story and those of others in this series are very impactful for those looking for meaning in life or just to marvel at the lives of others who made this move towards spiritual growth.”
Below are the Q and A’s.
How did the idea originate for this podcast series?
JC—I had just finished my tenure as president of Shomrei Torah in Fair Lawn. Leading the shul was one of the most fulfilling and rewarding experiences of my life. It was truly an honor to serve with Rabbi Benjamin Yudin as he transitioned to rabbi emeritus after 50 years while helping Rabbi Andrew Markowitz take the helm. I had mentioned to my wife, Carol, that I had been spending about 15-20 hours per week working on behalf of the shul and wanted to transition that volunteer time to another cause. She suggested I contact various nonprofit Jewish leaders I had met through the presidency and brainstorm potential ideas. One such meeting was with Ari Greene of New York NCSY. I shared with him how I had a deep passion for hearing about people’s journeys toward Jewish observance. As a baal teshuva myself, I’m always inspired to hear how other folks get on the path. Together we hit on the idea of launching a podcast to bring peoples’ stories to the masses.
What inspired you to make such a commitment?
JC—As my father-in-law always used to say, “An idea without execution is only a hallucination.” I left the dinner with Ari pondering what it would take to go from idea to launch. I didn’t have the answers but I knew I had hit on the idea I wanted to pursue.
Tell me about Tachlis Media and how the concept turned into a reality.
JC—Tachlis Media is a division of the OU. Ari, knowing I would need help to get the podcast launched, connected me with Rabbi David Pardo, managing director of Torah Initiatives at the OU. It was clearly meant to be, as Rabbi Pardo was seeking engaging content for a new podcast network to be launched on Tachlis Media. He not only championed the idea; he became the executive producer! He then recruited Gary Waleik, who formerly produced “Only a Game” on NPR; and Asher Tesser, a project manager for Tachlis. The dream team was now in place and we were ready to roll.
How are the interviewees chosen?
JC—We look for people who have compelling stories and are great storytellers. It’s that combination that makes for an interesting podcast audience experience. At the outset we’ve chosen people who weren’t born observant but became so at some point in time. In the future, we plan to expand to larger topics surrounding inspiring Jewish journeys.
How many interviews have you done?
JC—So far we have completed 10 interviews. Three have aired and the others are currently in the production stage. Each week, we launch the audio version midweek, and on Motzei Shabbos we launch the video version.
Who is your target audience?
JC—The podcast initially will be about sharing stories toward Jewish observance. Over time, we’ll delve into Jewish life from many angles. From secular to FFBs (frum from birth), we hope to inspire Jews of all walks of life. The more we all understand each other as Jews and appreciate our diverse backgrounds, the better it is for everyone. We are one people! For sure, we are also hoping to inspire people who may be considering entering the path to Jewish observance. Hearing real people who took concrete steps is often enough to motivate others to do the same. It’s about finding that balance between spirituality and a secular world so everyone can live their best life while feeling meaningfully connected to Judaism.
What is the ultimate goal?
JC—My hope through this podcast is to uncover real-life stories about how people have made their own journeys. Yes, we’ll review their highlights, but we will also get really honest about the hurdles our guests had to overcome. Challenges with family, at work, and in their personal relationships are all part of the story. As a listener, maybe even on your own unique journey, you’ll realize you’re not alone, and you just might walk away with a tip or two that can help your own spiritual growth. Additionally, if you’re already observant, hopefully you’ll better understand how your interactions with others can impact, change, or even inspire their journeys. Our goal is that you will also take away inspiration for your own journey, too!
Can you speak to some of your more fascinating or inspiring interviewees to date?
JC—It’s hard to pick just one story. Each has been unique and fascinating in its own right. Jamie Geller was great, as our listeners really heard that you can achieve astounding professional success without sacrificing Torah values. Saul Blinkoff, a renowned Hollywood animator and director, shared how he integrates Jewish values into his approach to movie making. An upcoming episode even features someone who decided to change his life while working for the Cleveland Cavaliers, flying on a private jet with LeBron James and Kyrie Irving. Seeing the height of fame and material success led him to question what really mattered in his own life. Plus, I recently did an interview with Rachel Krich, executive director for Project Ezrah. It’s inspiring to hear her recount the people who helped her become observant and how she gives back by helping people find jobs and get their lives back on track. We also just finished interviewing Ashley Blaker, a British comedian and television producer. I truly enjoyed hearing his comedic take on Jewish observance.
Those who wish to listen can access the latest podcasts at www.tachlismedia.com or simply subscribe wherever they listen to podcasts (Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Google Podcasts, Amazon, etc.). Also, if you’ve got a compelling story to share or know someone who would make an excellent guest, feel free to email Jeff at [email protected].
Robert Isler is a marketing research analyst and freelance writer. He can be reached at [email protected].