Because he belongs to a synagogue, Joe Sutliff is always asked by non-Jewish friends and coworkers about Judaism. Trouble is, Sutliff isn’t Jewish, although his wife and daughter are.
“Being a gentile, I didn’t realize how many people did not know anything about Judaism,” said Sutliff, 64.
So he did what Jews from “Fiddler” to “Shtisel” have done. He asked his rabbi.
That’s Rabbi Kenneth Block, of Temple Beth Torah, a Reform congregation in Chantilly.
“I’m always quoting [Block] to people. So I thought, you know, we should try and capture this information in this interfaith age,” Sutliff said.
That was the impetus for “The Rabbi & I,” a web series exploring Jewish religion and culture. Sutliff, off screen, asks Block questions about interfaith relationships, how Jews are portrayed in the media and how Block became a rabbi. Block’s answers are off the cuff and unscripted.
Block, 74, said his goal is to combat negative stereotypes of Jews in the media and to show that “Judaism provides a moral compass and guidance so that we can face or live through or adapt or be flexible.”
“Judaism is not bizarre or weird,” Block said. “Jews are not bizarre and weird. We don’t own a laser to start forest fires in California. We’re not poisoning the wells. We don’t use Christian children’s blood to make matzah.”
The two meet over Zoom every Sunday to record “The Rabbi & I.” Fifteen episodes have been uploaded to YouTube as of March 8.
Sutliff said the episodes are similar to their conversations over lunch before the pandemic began. They met to brainstorm ideas for programs at the 80-member-family synagogue.
“That part would take five or 10 minutes, but the conversation would always last at least an hour,” Sutliff said. “We just had these enjoyable conversations I personally found very illuminating.”
“I’m crazy. I’ll try anything,” Sutliff added. “And he’s the sedate, intelligent, well educated, conservative, religious version of crazy. But we share the same ideas sometimes. We’re always brainstorming ideas. And some of them get pretty silly at times, but some of them are long-term projects that we like the idea of.”
And one of those ideas was “The Rabbi & I.” The two uploaded their first episode in March 2019. There was a yearlong hiatus, but in the past few months, Sutliff and Block have been posting about two videos a week, with episodes titled “Is thinking bad things bad?” “What’s good about prayer?” and “The truth about lying.”
Block said he has no particular audience in mind, as it’s “aimed at anyone who will listen.” So far the channel has been viewed about 200 times.
Block and Sutliff want to build up their audience and bring on guest interviewers to ask their own questions. The rabbi said it’s hard for him to stand out online as there’s a prominent racecar driver who shares his name.
Nevertheless, Block wants to expand to other digital platforms. He has made a TikTok account and said he’ll start to post once he feels proficient in getting his thoughts down to a 30-second clip.
“I haven’t recorded anything yet, because I haven’t practiced what I want to say [in 30 seconds],” Block said. “But as soon as I can get my head there, I’ll do TikTok.”