St Albans hear from the Wollenbergs on ‘Stacey Dooley Sleeps Over’

St Albans United Synagogue members and friends were given a unique look behind the scenes when a US rabbi and his wife came to tell them what it was like when they opened the doors of their home to a questioning TV crew.

Rabbi Mordechai and Rebbetzen Blima Wollenberg, the Woodford Forest US rabbinic team, were in St Albans (February 25, 2024) at the invitation of their friend and colleague, the Hertfordshire shul’s Rabbi Daniel Sturgess, to talk about their starring roles in the second series of popular TV programme, “Stacey Dooley Sleeps Over…..”. Bent on shedding light on the lifestyle of a strictly orthodox Jewish family with nine children, the well-known journalist, presenter and ex-Strictly contestant, accompanied by a five-strong film crew, spent a three-day weekend with the Wollenbergs, closely following their every move, joining them for meals, and discussing the whys and wherefores of their religious observances.

After a screening of the film, first broadcast on the W channel in 2020 before getting a wider showing on BBC1 in 2022, the Wollenbergs described how the initial contact was made, and how, with incidences of anti-semitism increasingly becoming headline news even back then, the producers as well as Stacey were particularly keen to include a Jewish family in the series.

“Initially, we were not convinced about the wisdom of participating,” recalled Rabbi Wollenberg. “It was a bit of a gamble – it could have gone very wrong.” There followed a lot of hard thinking”, consultations with rabbinic colleagues and mentors, the United Synagogue, the Chief Rabbi’s Office, the CST – “and, of course, the kids. We weren’t doing it for fame – we don’t even have a TV in our home – but we were conscious that someone needed to be the face for our lifestyle”. Agreeing at last to go ahead, they stipulated – for security reasons – that the name of their synagogue and its exact location should not be mentioned on screen.

As filming progressed, Stacey and the Wollenbergs became very comfortable with each other. Conversations covered a wide range of topics, even the most sensitive, as when Rebbetzin Wollenberg indicated the sleeping arrangements in the couple’s bedroom to allow them to observe the laws of separation – possibly a TV first. But there was no attempt to make us look “weird”, she said.

Because filming took place during the time of Covid, what was seen on screen did not accurately reflect the normal Wollenberg life-style. As the rabbi pointed out, more normal times would have seen many more people popping in and out of the family home, and much more involvement in communal events and activities. As it was, viewers saw not much more than an unusual “drive-in” selichot service in the shul courtyard, which looked a little odd even to the Jewish observer.

But it was an eye-opener for the Wollenbergs, too. “ It was interesting to see that what we took for granted was so fascinating to anyone who was not familiar with it.” And they were delighted with the way the children carried themselves; despite some initial reservations and shyness, all appeared happy enough to play their part in the enterprise, especially Yisrulik, fresh from his barmitzvah at the time, who handled a lot of Stacey’s questions. “In fact, we got some unexpected answers from the kids,” laughed Rebbetzen Wollenberg. “In reply to the question “what is the best bit about being Jewish?”, their response was simply “the food”!
“So, what were the take-aways for us?” asked the Wollenbergs. “Firstly, we saw it as the ultimate reality TV show – a window inside the Jewish world, and we were genuinely happy with the way it turned out. What it made us realise is that we are all ambassadors for our religion and our way of life.” And the rabbi’s advice for anyone approached to take part in a similar programme? “Before you go ahead, make sure you know exactly what the agenda is, and whether the producers are friend or foe.”

By Jay Grenby

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