July 2, 2009, Updated September 12, 2012

Orthodox Israeli Jews Tzippi Shaked and her husband David took in two rebellious British teens as part of a BBC reality show, The World’s Strictest Parents.

Don’t mess around with Tzippi Shaked. She may not be strict, but she sure knows how to hold her ground. Shaked, her husband David, and family, former residents of Los Angeles, were the host family for two rebellious British teenagers in Israel to film a program for the high-rated, hit BBC docu-reality show, The World’s Strictest Parents.

The purpose of the BBC show is to give wayward teens a new perspective, and incentive to restart their lives.  

Could the rebellious, non-Jewish teens adapt to the norms of an observant Jewish family in Nof Ayalon, a community attached to the religious kibbutz Shalavim, that closes it gates on the Sabbath?

Gemma Lyons, 16, pretty, sassy, defiant, arrived in ‘religiously’ scant attire. Jack Travers, 17, a self-proclaimed Goth – arrived in black garb, long black-died hair, black eyeliner, multi piercings and black nail polish. Both teenagers, kicked out of schools in Hampshire, England, had issues – tension at home and problems controlling anger.

Shaked admits that she had feelings of trepidation about taking on the project. “If there is anyone who can do it, it is you,” said her parent’s rabbi in California. The daughter of a famous nuclear scientist, Nathan Joseph Hoffman, and a mother who nurtured her children to be compassionate and sensitive (she often brought in homeless people as well as stray animals) -Tzippi and David Shaked kept their cool, never shouting, during big and little eruptions that threatened to scuttle the show.

No stranger to turbulence

Shaked, who has a BA in journalism and Middle East studies, and an MA in Leadership and Administration, is not a novice to difficult situations. During the 1980s, she spent three turbulent years in South Africa working for an organization called Jews for Justice.

“We took over from the Red Cross when the government waged war against the militant townships,” Shaked tells ISRAEL21c, adding that her organization helped 200 men, women and children leave their burning village and find shelter in a synagogue in Cape Town.

Dodging about undercover without revealing her Jewish origins, she interviewed Nelson Mandela’s daughter, other famous black political activists, as well as Islamic militants. Her time in South Africa culminated in a book: <i>The Jews of South Africa: What future?</I>

Back in California, where she married David Shaked, a lawyer, and began raising her five children (now ages 5-18), Tzippi Shaked, also took in troubled children.

“The producer of the BBC show contacted me after reading a short essay I wrote about raising teens using a strong value system,” says Shaked. Shaked said she saw it as an opportunity to showcase Jewish values, and reach out to non-Jews.

The one condition Shaked had made of the producer, was the teenagers be “a pair we could work with. Not appalled by.”  

“I wanted to inspire them.”

Shaked spent two weeks, helping script the show, using skills she had used in her journalistic days when she hosted a cable TV show in LA. “I did not want to shove anything down their throats, I wanted to inspire them,” she says.

The schedule included working with the cows on the nearby kibbutz, visiting a Bedouin family, taking part in a simulated Army basic training session, picking cabbages for food for poor families, participating in a Lag Ba’omer campfire, meeting two survivors of the Holocaust who had rebuilt their lives, and visiting the Western Wall.    

The teens also went to three evening classes, separate for each gender, about the Jewish philosophy on dating, dressing with respect for the real you, and the fifth commandment (respect for parents). Shaked was determined that the events of the week would reflect the dynamism and vibrancy of both religious Judaism and Israel.   

On their first day, the Shakeds set the norms for the teenagers – dress appropriately for the religious neighborhood – no bikinis, no lip rings.

When Gemma refused to go to the nearby mall to buy new clothes, Tzippi arranged to have appropriate clothing brought from the local free-loan store.  

The teenager’s sassy behavior was a portent of scenes to come. “There were definitely highly confrontational moments on the show,” admits Shaked.

“That’s it. It’s over Gemma.”

A major crisis occurred after an outing Gemma, in a funk, had passed up. Returning, the crew spotted her sunbathing in a bikini on the Shaked’s front lawn.    

“That’s it,” Shaked told the girl, as the cameras rolled. “It’s over Gemma. I hope you have another opportunity in life to show respect and sensitivity to others and to straighten out your act.” In Shaked’s view: it was imperative to set very strong limits with a red line that could not be crossed.

“It was a massive deal,” says director Colin Rothbart. “We never had anything like that happen before in the history of the show.” Is there anything she can do to redeem herself?, the producers asked.

Shaked, resolute, sent Gemma (wrapped in a towel) off to Tel Aviv (no benefits, you have to enforce consequences) with some hot food and two books to read; insisting that she apologize.

A day and a half later, Gemma, genuinely contrite, rejoined the group in another dramatic scene in Jerusalem. Both the teens had an unexpectedly moving experience at the Western Wall. Gemma’s interest in archaeology was piqued during a visit to the nearby excavations.

A good time without drugs or alcohol

The teens were relieved that there were no cameras on the Sabbath. Jack, in a non-Goth white shirt with black stripes, was amazed that they could have a good time without drugs or alcohol.

Back in England, he admitted that he had snuck in some alcohol, but never touched it. The Sabbath atmosphere resonated well with both. “You could see that Gemma got it,” says Tzippi Shaked. “I had told her it was a good opportunity for her to be on the inside, to see it from a sociological point-of-view.”

How did the Shaked children react to the visitors? The older children are in phone and e-mail contact. Asked what he thought of the guests, five-year-old Chanan says: “I love them.”

In recent conversations, Gemma and Jack both said that they had found jobs and hoped to raise money to help pay for a return trip to Israel. Gemma would like to go to university in Israel; Jack would like to work on a kibbutz. Meanwhile, both teens have re-enrolled in College (11th and 12th grade).

The British docu-reality show is a genre whose goal is to show transformation. Looks like the Shakeds pulled it off – with a combo of love and limits and a strong sense of Jewish values.

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Jason Harris

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