'I'm trying to grow a community of like-minded people who want to hear the good things'

Viral rabbi captures hearts of online ‘congregation’ via social media

All that Meir Kay wants from his audience is a smile. But the millions of YouTube hits don’t hurt

Meir Kay's online videos generate millions of hits -- and smiles. (Courtesy)
Meir Kay's online videos generate millions of hits -- and smiles. (Courtesy)

NEW YORK — While Americans are still digesting the presidential inauguration, the new administration, and the Women’s Marches across the country, one of their brethren is putting his focus elsewhere. With a wardrobe of onesies, an infectious smile and unbridled enthusiasm, Meir Kay is a 21st-century badran, a hasid-turned-jester with millions of views on social media.

“My hope for the videos I create is to spread positivity and happiness to all who watch them, to make them smile, laugh, to walk away inspired to go forth and do an act of kindness,” says Kalmanson, 27, an unconventional rabbi whose equally unconventional “congregation” consists of online audiences of all stripes who know him simply as Meir Kay.

“I’m trying to grow a community of like-minded people who want to hear the good things about life, not just the negative which is regurgitated on mainstream media.”

In recent weeks, Kay has released plenty of examples. He challenged strangers to a dance off in the subway stations underneath New York City. Equipped with a pair of boxer shorts that read “100% Kosher,” he disrobed as a part of a bizarre New York campaign to ride the subway on a snowy day wearing no long pants. At a local Department of Motor Vehicles office, with his signature trance music, he invited others to join him in a silent rave. And dressed in a Star Wars robe, he spontaneously challenged New Yorkers to duel with light sabers.

Kay grew up in Connecticut and attended Chabad Lubavitch yeshivas in Miami, Florida; Manchester, England; Postville, Iowa; and Singapore, where he received rabbinical ordination. He first gained widespread traction in September 2014 with his high-spirited video “High Five New York,” which has drawn more than 2.3 million views.

A smile campaign by Meir Kay. (Courtesy)
A smile campaign by Meir Kay. (Courtesy)

“It may sound cliche, but for me, it was my first viral video which got tons of press and it really opened my eyes to realize this is something that I can do and do well,” Kay says. “It was a simple idea which didn’t have many moving parts or a massive budget. It was just me high five-ing New Yorkers while they hailed cabs and it made all the difference.”

The success of “High Five New York” set the tone for Kay’s take on leveraging the power of social media toward the common good of making others smile.

“Since then, some of my videos have become more elaborate and in need of more funding, but at the essence, what I feel ties my videos together is the message of ‘High Five New York,’ which is to connect with someone, to spread positivity and happiness,” he says.

“I truly love all the videos I create, I wouldn’t spend all the time, money and effort otherwise,” says Kay, who also maintains a presence on Facebook and Instagram.

“Like any project, it takes a team and I’m grateful for the people who I’ve had the opportunity to work with, learn from and create meaningful content.”

Kay, who has never held a steady 9 to 5 job, says he learned about video on movie sets as a production assistant working on short films, before “eventually jumping into the deep end and learning how to swim.”

‘I truly love all the videos I create, I wouldn’t spend all the time, money and effort otherwise’

In addition to the videos he personally funds and promotes online, Kay runs his own video production company, specializing in commercials and music videos.

“It’s my hobby, my passion,” he says. “Meeting new people, making friends with them, even if it’s for a brief moment, that connection is something that lasts forever… Down the road, months later, I’ll receive a message from that person saying how they enjoyed that time they got involved in one of my videos or had a spontaneous dance off on the subway platform. Also, seeing stern, focused faces transform into a smile and laugh is priceless. I feed off that positive energy and it makes all the effort that goes into producing and creating the scenarios worth it.”

Among some of his more unusual projects is a nearly three-minute video in which he took a life-sized paper doll of a disabled man on an overseas adventure.

“I met Oshry in Camp Simcha, one of the many programs of Chai Lifeline, an organization which helps thousands of children and their families who are battling cancer and chronic illness,” says Kay, who worked at the organization’s summer camp as a counselor. “He was my camper six years ago and ever since, well, there was no looking back. Talk about inspiration… he’s definitely one of them. He’s an incredible human being and I’ve learned so much from him.”

The idea to travel with Oshry is not new.

“For the past few years, I’ve pushed him in the Miami half marathon and before that we would take a cruise with some friends sometimes to the Bahamas or Mexico,” Kay says. “You see, Oshry loves to do many things, one of which is travel. When I decided to hit the road again and backpack South America, I thought how in some way could I travel with my main man Osh, and from that train of thought came the video.”

Kay also featured Oshry in one of his favorite videos about breaking stereotypes entitled “Are YOU Listening?”

Kay’s videos attract audiences with a wide range of stunts, some of which promote groups, including Chai Lifeline.

‘One of the most fun times I had on one of my videos was also one of my most nerve wracking ones’

“One of the most fun times I had on one of my videos was also one of my most nerve wracking ones,” Kay says. For his video, “Be A Kid Again,” he installed a bed in different locations in New York. His mission? “To give people the opportunity to be a kid again and jump on a bed,” he says.

The reactions ran from curious hesitation to full-on pillow fights.

“It was a sight… young and old getting on that bed and jumping on it,” Kay says. “To see their initial reactions of, ‘Is there an actual bed in middle of Columbus Circle?’ To walking towards it, and then actually jumping, was incredible. I didn’t have any permits to place the bed in any of the locations so the risk of getting shut down or worse was always lingering in the back of my mind.”

With good reason: When he and his crew schlepped the full-sized bed to New York’s Times Square, they “got shut down right away,” Kay says. But they weren’t ready to give up.

“After 30 minutes of talking with the chief police officer, he was kind enough to give us five minutes,” Kay says. “And so, for five minutes, New Yorkers and tourists were able to be a kid again. It was a special moment.”

Kay’s inspiration doesn’t come from one source.

“There’s a multitude of people, places, experiences that inspire me,” he says. “For many of my ideas, it’s hard to get to the genesis of where the idea came from. What I try to do is expose myself to as much of the world as I can, from traveling to meeting people, trying to new things, and always keep an open mind, to be a sponge and absorb what I can. And then something clicks and I’ll grab a piece of this and that and something from that other experience or something I saw and I’ll put it together and voila, an idea is formed.”

In the future, Kay hopes to branch out to public speaking and an apparel line supporting his message of “spreading positivity and happiness,” he says. “Some videos are sponsored by various companies and slowly those opportunities are coming my way more often and for that I’m grateful.”

The change in the presidency has not impacted Kay’s videos, because as he says, “I avoid politics in my work. There are enough outlets, people and influencers covering the topic, and around it comes lots of negativity.”

Still, he has noticed an increased need for connection and joy.

“People now, more than ever, are searching and yearning for inspiration and guidance for hope and happiness, and I hope my work can help with that,” he says. “I’m trying to spread positivity and happiness and build a safe haven for those who want and or need to tap into something good, and feel something joyful.”

If his number of views are an indication, the onesie may be a good place to start.

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