Radio host Nachum Segal seeks diverse ‘congregation’
With ‘JM in the AM,’ rabbi’s son engages in ‘wholesale’ outreach
For more than 25 years, the voice of Nachum Segal has been a welcome presence in the homes and on the car radios of thousands of Jews in the New York-New Jersey area and, thanks to the Internet, countless more in many parts of the world.
From 6 to 9 on weekday mornings on WFMU (91.1 FM), his radio broadcast JM in the AM features religious, community, and political news; Jewish music in Hebrew and English; birth and wedding announcements; and even sports reports from the area’s day schools.
And while the show reflects Segal’s own Orthodox practice and right-leaning politics, it is also a meeting place for fans of classic Israeli music, contemporary versions of liturgical songs, and interviews with national Jewish leaders.
“The impression is that the majority of our listeners are Orthodox, yeah. That’s probably accurate, but it’s very hard to say,” he told NJ Jewish News in a Nov. 26 telephone interview. “Am I intent on reaching beyond an Orthodox audience? There is no question about it.”
Segal will make one such effort when he appears before a Conservative congregation, B’nai Shalom in West Orange, at 8 p.m. on Saturday, Dec. 11. He will bring along Israeli-American folksinger Sandy Shmuely to entertain patrons of the synagogue’s “A Night at the Auction.”
“We invited Segal partly because of his outreach,” said the auction’s chair, Steve Colten of West Orange. “We have lots of members who are friendly with Nachum, and some of them are big supporters of his. We look to build bridges and create programming in the religious community and the secular community.”
To Segal, those bridges are already under construction. “There are people who claim they are now observant because of the show, and there are people who claim they would have no connection to the Jewish world if it was not for the show,” he said.
The son of a prominent New Jersey rabbi, Segal began his broadcasting career in 1981 on the campus radio station of Yeshiva University, where he was an undergraduate. In his senior year he began hosting JM in the AM at WFMU, now located in Jersey City.
In 2000, a New York Times article, now hanging on the wall of Segal’s Lower East Side apartment, called the show “unapologetically Orthodox, with rightward leanings.” The Times added that the show “creates a sense of community by offering ‘mazel tov’ wishes on the air between songs.”
“Is it accurate? Would I question The New York Times?” Segal said. “But all kidding aside, I guarantee you that the hasidic person in Williamsburg who likes my show would never regard it as ‘right-leaning,’ so it depends on your perspective. But, yeah, I would say the politics of the show is right-leaning, and it appeals to a tremendous number of people. I have gotten the message, ‘I hate your politics but I love your show’ a thousand times in the last 20 years.”
Segal said that “early on,” he considered becoming a rabbi.
His father, Rabbi Zev Segal, was religious leader at Young Israel of Newark from 1975 until he retired in 1978; from 1968 to 1971 he was president of the Rabbinical Council of America. He was also head of education at the Yeshiva of Newark, which evolved into the Joseph Kushner Hebrew Academy in Livingston.
“I find myself better at wholesale than retail Judaism,” said the broadcaster. “There are a lot of difficult things about being in my position. It is not easy to — quote-unquote — represent Judaism. Take the average rabbi and multiply that. Obviously, I have a pretty large congregation.”
That congregation showed its strength in March 2008, when the elder Segal disappeared just after leaving a 25th anniversary tribute to JM in the AM at the WFMU studio.
Within minutes after the rabbi was reported missing, listeners contacted one another and mobilized into a search party. The hunt ended when police discovered Segal’s car and lifeless body in the Hackensack River. Police said the elderly rabbi either was confused as he drove in the area or lost control of the car.
Listeners have also been able to share happy moments with the 47-year-old radio host, his wife Staci, and their six children — three of whom are 12-year-old triplets.
“When I got engaged and I got married and we had boys and they had brises, and when my wife had the triplets, these were significant events that my radio family felt a part of. That’s heartwarming,” he said. “I do what I do, and one of the byproducts is that people enjoy the sincerity, enjoy the efforts I make, and it might change their lives a bit.”