October 17, 2018

Telethon Time

Previous telethon guests include (from top): Ann Jillian, Mayim Bialik, William Windom, Charles Durning, Fyvush Finkel, Sid Caeser and Jan Murray. Top right, Murray, who will also co-host the show with Rabbi Boruch Shlomo Cunin.

Left to right: Jon Voight, Tony Danza, Charles Durning and Tracy Danza.If anyone had any doubts that the Chabad telethon has become a landmark on the pop culture scene, consider this: The entire cast of “Friends,” one of NBC’s top-rated sitcoms, has produced a segment of the show to air only on the telethon.

The brief segment will be featured twice during the telethon, which airs on Sunday, from 5 p.m. to midnight, on UPN Channel 13.

The “Friends” short is but the latest way that Chabad, most of whose leaders, volunteers and service clientele come from resolutely Orthodox backgrounds, has managed to appeal to the broadest possible audience.

What brings everyone together, according to Rabbi Boruch Shlomo Cunin, West Coast director of Chabad and telethon founder, is the desire of all people to help others. “Caring and sharing,” he said, “are the driving forces behind the success of the telethon.”

That, and irrepressible showmanship. The telethon — one of the last live variety shows on television, according to its promoters — zooms along, a savvy but sincere mix of Hollywood, high-tech marketing and religious fervor. Rabbi Cunin’s impassioned appeals for funds to support Chabad’s activities alternate with song, dance and merriment. Celebrities show up, don yarmulkes, and provide testimonials to Chabad’s generosity and efficiency. When the tote board flashes a new dollar total, everyone — from visiting Chabad dignitaries to the latest TV heartthrob — joins hands and dances to swirling klezmer music.

Previous Chabad telethons have seen Jan Murray, Jon Voight and Rabbi Cunin locked in a dervish-like kazatzka. Other celebrity visitors have included Bob Hope and Michael Douglas.

This year, the celebrities scheduled to appear include Ed Ames, Mayim Bialik, James Caan, Sid Caesar, Tony Curtis, Tony Danza, Fyvush Finkel, Estelle Getty, Elliott Gould, the Limelighters, Jan Murray, Judd Nelson, Edward James Olmos, Regis Philbin, the Tokens, Jon Voight and Shelley Winters. Hollywood producer Jerry Weintraub will chair the event, and comedian Freddy Roman, president of the New York Friars Club, hosts.

Chabad’s connections to some of Hollywood’s elite often come about as a result of its service work: Roman signed on to the program despite a prior commitment when he discovered that a close friend’s son had been helped through Chabad’s drug-rehabilitation program.

The telethon began in 1980 as a one-time event to raise funds to rebuild the West Coast Chabad headquarters, which had been destroyed by a fire that killed three people. Many of those whom Chabad had helped over the years turned out to lend their support, and the idea of an annual telethon took hold.

Seventeen years and millions of dollars later, the telethon has — witness the “Friends” episode — graduated to the category of Los Angeles institution, for Jews and non-Jews.

Rabbi Cunin, the man most responsible for infusing the telethon with its trademark spirit, is well aware of the telethon’s reach. For many Jewish viewers, he told The Journal, “this is the only expression of their Jewishness that they have all year.”

Indeed, Jews who would never set foot in a synagogue, much less in one of Chabad’s 60 centers or 48 schools and social-service facilities statewide, find themselves transfixed by the telethon, which airs simultaneously in cities nationwide. For them, the dancing rabbis in traditional black frocks and shtreimels provide a welcome and ample dose of Yiddishkayt.

According to Chabad, the money it receives goes to support a whole range of Chabad social-service and educational programs, including the Chabad drug-rehabilitation center, Project PRIDE drug-prevention centers, a homeless program, and educational outreach programs on college campuses and in local communities. About $4 million was raised on last year’s telethon, and Chaim Cunin, the rabbi’s son, said that he expects the show to bring even more this year, though he declined to give a target number.

The story of how an episode of one network TV’s highest-rated sitcoms ended up on the locally produced telethon of an Orthodox Jewish organization is a case study of Chabad’s influence and chutzpah.

A previous “Friends” episode had one of the character’s watching the telethon on his TV. Chabad had granted the show permission to use some actual footage.

When “Friends” producer Todd Stevens phoned Chabad’s Chaim Cunin to ask for permission to air that episode again, Cunin asked for a favor in return. The result is a segment that lauds the work of Chabad and encourages viewers to support it. Chabad staffers wrote the original script for the segment, which was then rewritten by “Friends” writers.

“We’re funny,” said Chaim Cunin, “but they’re funnier.”

Cast members from “Friends” said that they may also visit the telethon in person.