It’s getting dark and Rabbi Shmuley Boteach is scurrying in and out of an Airstream camper in the driveway of his Englewood home frantically repeating the same lines over and over again, while alternately changing from outfit to outfit.
No, the rabbi who penned "Kosher Sex" along with other 14 other books, isn’t freaking out. He’s just trying to finish filming his 10-episode television show "Shalom in the Home," which will premiere on TLC at 10 p.m. on Monday.
Shmuley takes his advice door-to-door on "Shalom in the Home." Jacob Berkman
The series is essentially an extreme-makeover for families. Boteach travels around the East Coast from dysfunctional family to dysfunctional family, parking his silver bullet Airstream outside their homes, and working with each family for a week at a time, trying to help them lay a foundation upon which they can rebuild their shattered relationships.
His crew films each family for up to 10 days, and the rabbi observes how family members interact on a series of flat-screen televisions inside of the Airstream. He spends time in each home talking with each family as a group, and invites family members in smaller groups to speak with him in the trailer, where they too can watch how they behave around each other.
Once he’s diagnosed a problem with a group of off-screen therapists, they design and carry out family-building exercises and activities.
He and his crew have been filming for nearly a year, and last Thursday they were filming "pick-ups" essentially filling in the blanks, re-filming less-than-a-minute-long snippets of near-completed shows and they’re racing against the clock because Boteach has a guest spot on a talk show that evening.
But the frantic pace is nothing compared to the anger and despair that Boteach says he has seen while working with the families.
Take for instance, the Romero family, which Boteach counsels in the series premiere. Beatrice and Luis were married for 17 years and had four children before they divorced 18 months ago after Luis was unfaithful. Their three teenaged daughters and 8-year-old son are out of control. They literally go after each other with brooms during scuffles inside the house, and 16-year-old Janice is in a sexual relationship with her boyfriend. Beatrice won’t let Luis in the house, and he has become semi-estranged from his children.
There seems to be some desire for reconciliation, but Beatrice simply does not trust Luis, and Luis, while he says that he still loves his wife, will not break ties with his girlfriend.
When Boteach pushes Luis to do so during a conversation in the Airstream, Luis, on the verge of tears, storms out of the Airstream.
"You have one kid telling the other, ‘I hope you die.’ They’re going after each other with brooms," Boteach tells Luis during the show. "They need a man to tell them they are special. These girls need a father now, not a boyfriend. You are a father. Be a father. You’re a husband. Be a husband. Show it. People believe actions, not words. Love doesn’t count no matter how much you feel it, unless you show it."
America, says Boteach, is becoming an angry country. Success is judged almost solely on how much money we make, and therefore most Americans feel like failures. Fathers, he says, can’t just take solace in the fact that they are good fathers, and relationships are constantly strained.
The show is not about pushing Judaism, and Boteach, aside from wearing a yarmulke and sporting a bushy beard, makes scant overt references to Judaism. But, he says, the messages that he brings are deeply steeped in Judaism.
"The Rambam says that anger is a wave," says the rabbi, "and if you were at the beach and a wave came, you could either duck it or ride the wave. If you ride the wave, you don’t know where it will go. It could crash against a rock. But if you just wait three seconds and you don’t feel or do anything, the wave can pass, and you can do what you need to do. That period is absolutely crucial."
Much of the advice that he peddles on the show that to fix a problem you have to look within yourself for the motivation to actually go out and fix it instead of waiting for some external inspiration to push your hand is also based on Maimonides.
Boteach, who had a daily radio show for several years, and who has spent much time as a guest on talk shows such as "The Today Show," "The View," "Good Morning America," and "The O’Reilly Factor," says that he wasn’t looking for his own television show, and when his agent called him to audition for this one, he didn’t really take the audition all that seriously. He caught a red-eye flight from an out-of-town engagement and went right to work with a sample family with no prep time and little sleep.
And the truth is that TLC initially thought the show would take a black urban psychologist into mainstream white homes to help with family issues.
"I didn’t even think he had a shot," said the show’s executive producer, Ronnie Krensel, who also produced Oxygen’s "Nice Package."
But the execs were looking for something out of the box, and they apparently found it in Boteach. They even changed the format of the show, and came up with its title, which Boteach thinks is gutsy. (But playing on the mainstream success of chasidic reggae singer Matisyahu, Kransler thinks now is as good as time as any for an Orthodox rabbi to make it with his own mainstream television show. "Jewish is the new black," he jokes.)
Some will criticize Boteach for using his foray into television as the latest move in a rabbinical career that has been nothing if not high profile. Boteach first gained prominence for his frank book, "Kosher Sex," and made tabloid news with his since-terminated friendship with and counseling of Michael Jackson.
But Boteach insists that is not the case.
Boteach, whose parents split up when he was 8, is from a broken home, and he says that it has always been his life’s mission to help families heal. If he gets to do it on a national stage, so be it.
In fact, as The Jewish Standard went to press, Boteach was still haggling with TLC lawyers over his desire to keep in touch and to keep counseling some of the families he has met while working on the show. Boteach now considers them his friends and has been inviting some of them to his own family events such as the recent bris of his newborn son while the lawyers are concerned about liability. And he speaks passionately about the families he has met through the show, from the lesbian couple dealing with raising a child, to the angry divorced man who has put on 40 pounds since his marriage failed.
Can he always help a family heal in a matter of days?
"This show couldn’t be more real," he says. "We don’t do anything to create a happy ending. Some shows have raw endings. Sometimes the family loves me. Sometimes they can’t wait to get rid of me."