Monday, March 14, 2011
JEM Celebrates 30 Years of Jewish Content Production

Jewish Educational Media (JEM), the video archive and multimedia arm of the Chabad- Lubavitch movement, is celebrating its thirtieth anniversary. Initially incorporated to broadcast and disseminate the public sermons of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, of blessed memory, JEM has since expanded its goals.

Today it serves as the central archive for the audio, video, and photographic records of the Rebbe’s lifetime and the Lubavitch movement. Restored videos, such as a recently released Purim address from 1973, have been eagerly received.

According to Rabbi Elkanah Shmotkin, JEM’s Executive Director, original video recordings of the Rebbe’s public addresses, have a powerful effect.

There’s no doubt that people who learned directly from the Rebbe were uniquely inspired by him. We’ve seen that technology – video and audio – is able distill and re-create that experience.” Shmotkin says. Through the JEM’s video releases “the scope of the Rebbe’s vision and the power of his message” is made fully accessible to the general public. A parallel oral history project by JEM has also been established, recording personal encounters with the Rebbe and documenting the growth and development of the Chabad movement.

In a letter of support, Professor Ann Braude, of Harvard University Divinity School, applauds JEM for giving “access not only to the record of an important religious leader, but also to the lives, practices and beliefs of a significant cultural trajectory that has influenced American society, history, and religion.”

JEM’s roots lie in the early public relations work of Rabbi Yehuda Krinsky, Chairman ofMerkos L’inyonei Chinuch and Machne Israel, the movement’s education and social services arms. In the early 1970’s, Rabbi Krinsky, then a member of the Rebbe’s secretariat, made arrangements for videotaping the Rebbe’s weekday addresses. Today, the 150 hours of black and white half-inch tape make up the oldest part of JEM’s video archive.

Initially used for Lubavitch News Service, today Rabbi Krinsky sees the early work as critical to the documentation of Rebbe’s legacy and message.

“The videos we recorded have become a treasure without which we would be much poorer as individuals and as a community,” he says.

The formal work of JEM began in September 1980 when a public address of the Rebbe was broadcast by satellite to the Chabad community in Los Angeles. Soon other communities including those in Israel, Argentina and Australia began to participate in these telecasts. By year’s end, the Rebbe’s weekday addresses were broadcast on public access cable, reaching an audience of nearly a million.

“At the time, the work we were doing was revolutionary,” says JEM's founder RabbiHillel Dovid Krinsky. “Satellite technology was only just emerging and the technical difficulties involved in filming and broadcasting were unprecedented.”

Unlike traditional broadcast television, which is filmed in a controlled environment, JEM recorded the Rebbe’s talks without aid of special lighting, acoustics or even prior rehearsal.

The Rebbe welcomed the live broadcasts, tailoring his message to a global audience during such broadcasts, focusing on matters of broad relevance such as universal ethics.

The live broadcasts would prove a powerful outreach tool. At the time, the multiple channels available on cable TV were a novel concept. “Channel surfers” would stumble upon the Rebbe’s talks with a running English translation, by Chabad scholar Rabbi Manis Friedman, and pique the curiosity of viewers. A phone bank was set up at Chabad headquarters to take hundreds and even thousands of calls coming in from curious viewers.

Joe Papp, a New York theatrical producer, famed for establishing the Public Theater and “Shakespeare in the Park," an annual theater festival held in the summer in New York City's Central Park, was one such viewer who contacted JEM after seeing the Rebbe on cable TV.

Rabbi Yosef B. Friedman, then JEM’s Creative Director and now a member of its board, recalls Papp’s initial contact. The producer was so enthralled with the live broadcast, he later told Rabbi Friedman and his team, “Before seeing this, I didn’t realize that the Jewish People still had a Moses.”

After the Rebbe’s passing in 1994, JEM turned its attention to preserving the original video recordings it had amassed.

“We realized that we had a unique challenge on our hands, with the inevitable degradation of the precious recordings. But it came together with a tremendous opportunity: If we could leverage the recordings and get them out to people, we’d be doing something very meaningful.” says Rabbi Shmotkin. Over the course of recent years, JEM scaled its operations achieve its goals, and, under Shmotkin's guidance, it has expanded to a 25-member team that now works in a state- of-the-art 3,500 square foot facility.

In 2001 JEM launched the Living Torah series, culling highlights from the hours of footage of the Rebbe’s public addresses. Today JEM’s flagship project, The Living Torah, reaches some 220,000 people weekly.

In order to preserve the footage, JEM launched the Living Archive Project. Shmotkin says that when the project is complete, the archive will open to the general public for research.

“The archive has materials that are relevant to almost any audience,” Shmotkin says. “Our goal is to reach each person with the specific content and through the format that is most suited to them.”

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