Celebrated TV producer Elad Kuperman finds a new reality in the Biala court
Photos: Elchanan Kotler
For Israeli television viewers, Elad Kuperman is synonymous with some of the most creative programming over the last three decades. As a producer, he’s the behind-the-scenes guy who makes things happen — yet over the last few years, the Great Producer started pulling on his soul strings. And that’s why Elad often finds himself in the inner sanctum of the Biala-Beit Shemesh Rebbe. “Here,” he says, “is where I make my most important life decisions”
The last place you’d expect to run into award-winning veteran Israeli television producer Elad Kuperman is in Ramat Beit Shemesh, on the outskirts of the kanoi neighborhood of Kiryat Ramah, with its “Don’t pass through our neighborhood in immodest clothing,” and “Zionists out” graffiti. But Kuperman isn’t fazed — he’s got a large black kippah on his head, and he’s here on one of his regular visits to his rebbe. “Ich fur tzum rebbin,” he says in Yiddish.
His eyes light up as he nears the sign Beis Medrash d’Chasidei Biala Beit Shemesh. “This is like my home,” he explains, and as he enters, it looks like he’s not exaggerating. He’s greeted warmly by longtime gabbai Reb Leibel Porush, and a minute later he kisses the Rebbe’s hand and is embraced like a long-lost friend.
For Israeli television viewers, the name Elad Kuperman is synonymous with the developing industry over the last three decades. He began his career at a time when, after decades as a one-channel monopoly, Israeli TV incorporated cable television as well as the country’s first commercial channel. From the beginning, he seemed to have an innate sense of what the Israeli public wanted to watch, and was the creator of the reality TV genre, Israeli-style.
A producer, as Kuperman himself notes, is the behind-the-scenes guy who knows how to make things happen. He’s spent years bringing ideas to fruition — coordinating sets, positioning cameras, timing events, and turning vague plans into reality.
And like any good producer, he takes everything into account. Except that in the last few years, something changed. The Great Producer started pulling on his soul strings. And it turns out that every now and then, Kuperman leaves all his business behind, sets out from his home in Ramat Hasharon or his offices in Tel Aviv, and comes here, to the Rebbe’s room.
“This is where I make my most important life decisions,” he reveals.
Because it isn’t easy for a man who’s only recently undertaken to keep Shabbos and other Jewish observances while remaining in the center of the Israeli entertainment industry. “But my rebbe, even though he comes from a world of kedushah, understands me completely,” he says.
For Rav Pinchas Yirmiya Rabinowitz, the Biala-Beit Shemesh Rebbe (also known as the Biala-Lenchne Rebbe), it doesn’t really matter what a person’s status is on the outside. He has an expanded heart for bochurim on the fringe, for souls who’ve lost their way, and for many others who are just finding theirs.
“I’ve been here dozens of times throughout my journey back to authentic Judaism, and never did I hear a single word about estrangement,” says Kuperman as we join him in his meeting with the Rebbe. “I was always received like a member of the family, and it made no difference what I did or how I was dressed, even when I was distant [from Hashem].”
But the Rebbe doesn’t like that word. “Today there’s a lot of talk about kiruv rechokim,” explains the Rebbe, a son of the previous Biala Rebbe of Bnei Brak, Rav Dovid Matisyahu Rabinowitz ztz”l, known as the Lahavas Dovid. (After his passing in 1997, Rebbe Dovid’s four sons were coronated as rebbes in different communities.) “Whenever I hear that phrase, I’m a little taken aback. Who decides who’s close and who’s distant? Who are we to judge a fellow Jew’s closeness to HaKadosh Baruch Hu? Here we don’t use the term rechokim. Here we’re engaged in kiruv kerovim. We show people how close they really are.
“And you know,” the Rebbe continues, “there’s one thing for which I simply envy you.” Kuperman looks perplexed. “Yes, I envy your shemiras Shabbos.”
The Rebbe closes his eyes and tries to explain: “Some of us, we were zocheh — we were born already on the summit of the mountain, we didn’t have to climb it. From our earliest youth we were surrounded by the fragrance and flavor of Shabbos — keeping it was never a nisayon for us.
“But here sits a Jew, chelek Eloka mima’al. A pure neshamah, to whom Hashem decided to give such difficult nisyonos in the area of keeping Shabbos. He had to climb up a flat wall. There were days when he called me and all we could do was cry together. But he conquers, he breaks through the obstacles and attains the holy level of keeping Shabbos. And so, I ask you, how can anyone talk about kerovim and rechokim? Who knows how many people among us, who on the surface seem closer to Hashem, would have failed that test? There’s nothing closer to Hashem than an earnest Jewish neshamah.”
Still a Chassid
While the Biala Rebbe is known among many struggling Jews for his warmth and openness, Elad Kuperman’s connection is actually a family thing, going back to a different century and a different continent, to the Polish town of Shedlits (Siedlce). In 1905, a holy avreich named Yerachmiel Tzvi Rabinowitz arrived in the city — the son of Rav Yaakov Yitzchak Rabinowitz, the first Biala Rebbe (knowns as the Divrei Binah of Biala), who had passed away that year. Rav Yerachmiel Tzvi was invited by his father’s chassidim to become their rebbe. He became famous for his violin playing and the moving niggunim he composed, but above all for his kedushah.
“This young rebbe’s shul was frequented even by the simplest Jews,” Kuperman says. “Chassidim who stuck to him with simplicity and honesty. Among them was the Rubinstein family, my great-grandparents.”
While many new chassidim were drawn to the Rebbe as well, his success was short-lived: After just half a year at the helm of the chassidus, the young rebbe died tragically at the young age of 26, just a year after his own father. He left behind two young children.
One of them, Yechiel Yehoshua — who would come to be known as the Chelkas Yehoshua — was sent off to be raised by his relatives in Ozharov and Lublin. Almost two decades would pass before he married and returned to Shedlits, to take his father’s place. When he arrived there in 1923, the Rubinstein family was still waiting for him. One of his closest chassidim, Reb Eizik Baruch Rubinstein, was Elad Kuperman’s grandfather.
At the beginning of World War II, the Chelkas Yehoshua managed to escape Nazi-occupied Poland and flee to the Russian-controlled zone, from where he and his young son Dovid Mattisyahu were exiled to Siberia. (Although separated by war, all of his sons escaped and were eventually reunited in Eretz Yisrael, where they all became rebbes after the Chelkas Yehoshua’s petirah in 1981. Rav Dovid Matisyahu, known as the Lahavas Dovid, became Rebbe in Bnei Brak. He passed away in 1997 and was the father of the Biala-Beit Shemesh Rebbe.) Biala chassidim still tell the stories of the Rebbe’s mesirus nefesh in that frozen wasteland. What not everyone knows is that there was one family that remained at his side throughout all his travails: the Rubinsteins.
Says Kuperman, “My grandfather was a soldier in Anders’ Polish army [which eventually passed under British command and eventually made its way through Iran to Palestine], and he was with the Rebbe during most of his winding escape route. When they reached Baranovitch, my mother was born.”
In 1947, when the Chelkas Yehoshua finally arrived in Eretz Yisrael and was reunited with his family, he realized he had a mission to rebuild all that was lost. He turned to his son Dovid Matisyahu and said, “Mein kind, we can’t slack off. We have to rebuild everything from scratch — both the chassidus that was wiped out in Poland, and the chassidish world in general.”
Eizik Baruch Rubinstein and family members also made their way to Eretz Yisrael. They settled in Ramat Hasharon and tried to start a new life. “On the outside, my grandfather didn’t look like your typical modern chassid,” says Kuperman. “He was a working man, a manual laborer. But at the same time, honest and G-d fearing. A real oheiv Hashem. He would level roads with the help of a mule. He himself was completely religious, but the next generation veered off the track a bit.”
That was a different time. Ramat Hasharon wasn’t exactly a bastion of Torah. “Still,” says Kuperman, “the Jewish tradition never disappeared.” His father came from Argentina, and he describes growing up in a family that was “not quite religious, but traditional. We went to shul on chagim and I’d sometimes go to shul on Shabbos with my father, even though I attended regular public school.” And there was one other concept that was never far away: “Biala Rebbe.”
Whenever he was faced with an important life choice, whether in terms of parnassah, health, or anything else, Zeide Rubinstein would consult with his rebbe, the Chelkas Yehoshua.
“I myself,” he says with a trace of disappointment, “never merited to see the Chelkas Yehoshua. But everyone in my family did. Even my parents — and especially my mother, may she live long — went to the Rebbe and he received them like his children, without batting an eyelash about their lifestyle or their professions. After his passing in 1981, my family continued to consult with his son, the Lehavas Dovid.”
But for Kuperman himself, there was another factor that kept him attached to tradition: Rav Yaakov Edelstein ztz”l, the beloved rav of Ramat Hasharon, the religious face of this primarily secular town from 1950 until his petirah in 2017.
He knew Rav Edelstein as far back as he can remember. “It’s father, it’s love, it’s light, it’s someone who sees the inner Jew within you,” Kuperman says.
He remembers how he used to go to shul with his grandfather. “Whenever I lost my place in the siddur, I would walk up to the Rav to ask where we were holding. And he would stop his davening to point out the place to me. Only years later, when I got closer and started learning the halachos, did I understand that I was probably disturbing him in the middle of parts of the davening where you’re supposed to stay focused. Maybe even in the middle of Shema or Shemoneh Esreh. But the Rav sacrificed his davening so that a Jewish child from public school could follow along.”
But the relationship went much further than a kid who lost his place in the siddur. “He always invested in me,” Kuperman continues. “And of course, when I was making my own transition, he was behind me and supporting me all the way. He told me: Don’t change what you’re doing. You work with your heart, and it’s a Jewish heart, so you’ll know what’s appropriate and what isn’t.”
Lots of Little Things
Kuperman says his professional pursuits developed almost by accident. He admits he wasn’t much of a student, but when his parents bought him a camera, he found his niche. “My school counselor told my mother that nothing would come of me, because ‘all the kid is interested in is taking pictures,’ ” he says. But looking at the world through the camera lens is what eventually jumpstarted his career. “As a kid I learned everything from my camera. I just picked up my camera and started photographing everything.”
His first “break” was in a small communications class in Alon high school in Ramat Hasharon. “There were only five students in the class,” he remembers. “I was the sixth, and they made me responsible for the lighting.”
From there he went on to serve in an IDF intelligence unit, and after the army he ended up in Tel Aviv University, where he took the initiative to produce some shows in the drama department. His first television break turned into a years-long stint as a producer on the cable Children’s Channel, producing morning chat shows, and then seven years producing for one of the country’s popular entertainment figures. But he became intrigued with “reality television,” which had been making inroads in other countries, and decided to create an Israeli version.
While in some countries, reality television offers contestants fame and fortune, his first production, The Ambassador, was actually a type of hyped-up Israeli public relations campaign, as contestants competed at various venues in defending Israel’s reputation and making its case abroad. For Kuperman, it was both a ratings-grabber and a bit of patriotism. (The first season’s winner, Eytan Schwartz, won the prize of getting a position at a pro-Israel lobby, and later ran on Labor’s slate for the Knesset.) Another of his popular shows, one that took off around the world under various remade titles, was The Successor, in which contestants would perform acts of mentalism, illusion, escapism, and other feats before a live studio audience, and originally featured mentalist Uri Geller.
Kuperman isn’t so comfortable discussing the particulars of his path to teshuvah — and in other media interviews, when asked, he’s always shied away from the details. “In life,” he says vaguely, “there are gradual processes. Many little things happen that end up bringing greater processes to fruition.”
But he does mention two defining moments when he realized he wanted to make the existential switch. One of them happened during a biking marathon that was held on Shabbos.
“This entails weeks of training,” he explains. “It means riding for kilometers, up hills and down inclines, and as it strengthens the body, it purifies your mind as well. Suddenly, in the middle of riding, I started feeling uncomfortable. I had this sudden sensation that it wasn’t right to be riding on Shabbos. I can’t explain it.”
Another of those moments came in the middle of a business meeting at his lawyer’s office in a ritzy Tel Aviv skyscraper.
“It was afternoon, and in comes this chareidi avreich — his name was Rabbi David Lachover — who would come by to deliver a Gemara shiur as part of the Meorot Daf Yomi program,” Kuperman relates. “I was curious, so I went to join them at their shiur. It was magical. I realized there was this entire world I knew nothing about. That was my first exposure to Gemara, and I started feeling like I wanted more of it. I called Rabbi Lachover and we actually set up a chavrusa in my office.”
Back in Ramat Hasharon, he began to connect with other friends and acquaintances who were also searching spiritually. One of them was his friend and neighbor Oded Menashe, a well-known actor, kids’ entertainer, and TV personality. He and his wife, TV personality Eden Harel, were chozer b’teshuvah several years back, and have been quite outspoken about their teshuvah. Oded and Eden are disciples of Rav Yuval Asherov, and during their initial foray into religion, they arranged a shiur in their home, which is still going strong a decade later. Kuperman is still a regular there as well. These baalei teshuvah, however, are a different genre from their predecessors of a few decades ago — people like Rabbi Uri Zohar and others who cut off their ties with the secular entertainment world and took the dive into mainstream chareidi society.
“Look,” Kuperman says, “I don’t believe a person should disregard his past and reject his G-d-given talents. Rav Asherov always says that everyone has a ‘tafkid,’ from the word ‘pikadon,’ something you’ve been entrusted with. The thing is, you have to decide what you’re going to do with it.”
While his friend Oded isn’t shy about discussing his family’s journey — he and Eden have five young children who attend religious schools — Kuperman prefers to remain quiet in reference to his own family. While he doesn’t like to define exactly who he is at this point, what he does say, when pressed for details about his personal religious growth, is simply (with a Yiddish inflection), “I’m a baal teshuveh.”
All About Reality
Kuperman isn’t the first veteran of the branja — the Hebrew slang term referring to Israel’s top-tier, secular, moneyed elite of politics and culture — to make a spiritual about-face, and he isn’t apologetic.
“It’s fine,” he says, “we’re all cool together. I’m not muktzeh. I’ve been in the business for decades, and I know the talents I’ve been blessed with. Whoever wants to continue working with me, great. I’m not chasing anyone. But it’s true that when projects come my way, I often have to think twice and ask myself if I should get involved or not — if it’s appropriate for me or not. Baruch Hashem, today I have who to ask, and my rebbe is always available to guide me. We meet often, we speak. The Rebbe has always encouraged me to remain in the field.”
Nearly two decades ago, Kuperman put his stamp on reality TV, a field that he says “always intrigued me. It influences like no other media, and more than anything else, people are drawn to real-life stories.”
There are a lot of past projects he admits he wouldn’t touch today, but says he had no regrets. That’s who he was, and you don’t erase your past. Still, today when he looks for new projects, the angle is no longer about ratings and prizes and fun, but about things that will have a positive influence.
And that’s how last summer, Kuperman’s reality TV entered a new era — the kind of project he’s wanted to do for several years now, something that connects, that does good things for the Jewish People. It happened when he joined forces with two fellow veteran directors of television and film: Breslover baalei teshuvah Reb Uri Groder and Reb Ohad Gal-Oz.
In the summer of 2020, the three of them brought the Israeli public, tissues in hand, to the edge of their seats: Equipped with hidden cameras and great sensitivity culled from their personal teshuvah journeys, they set out to heal the pain of estrangement between chareidi baalei teshuvah and the family members they left behind. It became the riveting documentary series Od Nipagesh (We Will Yet Meet Again) built around the common Israeli reality of the bleeding wound between baalei teshuvah who’ve moved into a new world, and their families who remain in their old lives, often feeling resentful and betrayed — a father, mother, siblings, and sometimes children — who don’t understand what happened to them.
They selected five complex, painful stories — five Israelis whose connection with someone very close to their heart was cut off because of the teshuvah and the resentments and hurt that accrued in its wake. The filmmakers then offered to reintroduce them to their estranged relative — on film.
The idea was to search for real stories — secular siblings, parents, or children, who despite all the pain of estrangement, desired to reconnect before it would be too late. And they succeeded, says Kuperman, because as documentary producers, the team has learned to keep themselves out of the picture. “In this genre,” he says, “the key is to be quiet, to remain unseen, to make everyone else forget that they’re being filmed.
“And,” he continues, “this was a wonderful example of how you can use your position to unite, to light up, to bring together.”
Of course, Kuperman made sure to discuss the project with the Rebbe, and to receive his brachah before the series aired.
“There’s nothing more important than moving forward connections between Jews,” the Rebbe told him at the time. “If you can bring these souls back together, you have a huge zechus.”
Now, as we’re sitting together, the Rebbe elaborates: “The Baal Shem Tov and his disciples revealed to the world how close every Jew is to HaKadosh Baruch Hu, how much Hashem is just waiting for his service. And showing that to another Jews is a shlichus given to every one of us — in reality we’re all kiruv ‘activists,’ even those just starting out on the journey themselves. Every Jew who walks down the street or steps into a store is Hashem’s representative in the world, and he has a message and a mission. The people around us are our brothers, even though they may be estranged. And so, when I see a Jew like Reb Elad Kuperman, whom Hashem has planted in a workplace full of good Jews who are also our brethren — he has a special mission. He needs to be there, to connect to our brothers. Here in Bet Shemesh, Bnei Brak, Yerushalayim, Hashem has a lot of shluchim. But Elad is shining his light in other places, for a different audience.”
—Rachel Ginsberg contributed to this report
(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 862)
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