Every week, Judaism is put on the hot seat, sort of.
On the cable television show "Diana, Mike and the Rabbi," Rabbi Shmuel Kaplan offers up answers to sometimes-pointed questions about Judaism's place in the modern world. Is it environmentally correct? What does the Torah have to say about cloning? And where are the steamiest narratives in the Bible?
"The show tries to motivate the Jewish community to become more observant and better understand its heritage," said Kaplan, regional director of Chabad Lubavitch, a Hasidic sect of orthodox Judaism that focuses on educational outreach. "Although I'm presenting the traditional Jewish viewpoint, I don't look at this as the standard religious program. I think we can get our message across in an interesting and entertaining way."
During the first half of the show, which is filmed in Rockville, Diana Ely-Epstein and Michael Hoffman fire questions at Kaplan. "I think of it sort of as a 'Meet the Press' with the rabbi in the hot seat. The rabbi really gets grilled," said Hoffman, 48, who lives in Silver Spring and also is director of development for the Jewish Council for the Aging.
In May, the program won a first-place award in the religion/inspiration category of the Home Town Video Awards, which honor programs shown on cable access channels. There were about 2,800 entries from across the country for eight categories.
"Diana, Mike and the Rabbi" recently filmed its 100th episode and airs in Montgomery County on cable station 49 for those with converter boxes and channel 23 for those without boxes. It is on at 10 a.m. Sundays and 7:30 p.m. Mondays. The program also can be seen on cable channels in Northern Virginia, the District and Baltimore.
Besides the question-and-answer segment, the program includes segments with Ely-Epstein reading an illustrated story or reviewing a book, as well as with Kaplan explaining an aspect of Judaism.
Many of the stories have the flavor of a tale from "Ripley's Believe It or Not": A harried, widowed father of six pays no attention to his children's insistence that the baby is missing. When a beggar comes to the door looking for food, the father almost turns him away but reluctantly opens the refrigerator for him. Inside is the missing baby, with severe hypothermia.
In another story, gleaned from a 1949 issue of Reader's Digest, a man on a New York subway sits down next to someone reading a Hungarian newspaper. They strike up a conversation and realize that they are from the same town in Hungary and that both were in concentration camps during World War II. One man asks the other, "Isn't your wife's name Bella?" "Yes," replies the man, "but she died during the Holocaust." Instead, the other man tells him that his wife is alive and living in New York.
"These are just amazing stories. They show that the hand of God is everywhere. You just have to open your eyes," said Ely-Epstein, 53, who lives in Potomac and has worked as a radio personality for WMAL and whose voice narrates some of the exhibits at the United States Holocaust Museum.
The content and the repartee among the cast differentiate the show from other religion programs, according to Kaplan, who also has hosted a radio show, "Awake, Alive and Jewish," with Hoffman for the last 19 years.
"Whatever we sit down and get into an argument about is a possible topic for the show," said Kaplan, 50, who lives in Baltimore.
The show also steers away from asking for contributions.
"We don't say if we don't get $10,000 by next week, we'll be called in by the Lord. The program is strictly about everyday life for Jews," said Barry Holzsweig, who has volunteered to produce the show since the first episode four years ago. In fact, he is so committed to the program that after he moved to Clearwater, Fla., several years ago to pursue a job producing a show about local bands, Holzsweig began commuting back to Maryland to work on "Diana, Mike and the Rabbi."
Although there are no ratings to gauge the size of the audience, all three of the stars say they have been recognized in unlikely places. According to the Jewish Information and Referral Bureau in Rockville, 92,000 Jews live in Montgomery County, and the total Jewish population of the Washington area is 185,000.
Kaplan surmises that the rise of the remote control has helped fuel his audience.
"Channel surfing has been a boon to all of cable. We have the possibility for greater exposure than I initially thought possible," he said.
In an effort to gain even greater viewership, Holzsweig is working to have the show picked up in at least a dozen cities across the country. As part of that endeavor, he plans to add paid advertising to help cover costs, revamp the show's living room-type set and focus the show more on spirituality. At the same time, he doesn't want to lose the show's trademark banter and exploration of the many facets of Judaism.
"People say it looks like we're having a good time. We're having a wonderful time," Ely-Epstein said. "Nothing you can do is better than sharing the real joy and beauty of what Judaism is."
CAPTION: Michael Hoffman, left, Diana Ely-Epstein and Rabbi Shmuel Kaplan co-host a cable access television show about Judaism that is filmed in Rockville.
CAPTION: Rabbi Shmuel Kaplan said his TV show "tries to motivate the Jewish community to become more observant."