The Chabad Telethon: Beyond silence

One of the most moving letters you’ll read this year was written by Irwin Cotler, a Canadian member of parliament, to the president of the International Olympic Committee (IOC), Jacques Rogge, imploring him to hold a minute of silence for the 11 Israeli athletes murdered by Palestinian terrorists 40 years ago at the Munich Olympics.

Rogge had already refused the request for the opening ceremonies, so Cotler urged him to do so during the closing ceremonies:

“This Sunday, when the London 2012 Olympic Games conclude, let us pause to remember and recall each of the murdered athletes. Each had a name, an identity, a family — each person was a universe: Moshe Weinberg; Yossef Romano; Ze’ev Friedman; David Berger; Yakov Springer; Eliezer Halfin; Yossef Gutfreund; Kehat Shorr; Mark Slavin; Andre Spitzer; Amitzur Shapira.

Dr. Rogge … it is not too late to be on the right side of history.”

Cotler appealed not only to emotion but also to reason. Such a memorial, he reminded Rogge, was not without precedent:

“Two years ago during the Winter Olympic Games in Vancouver, the IOC observed a moment of silence — over which you presided, appropriately enough — in memory of the Georgian athlete, Nodar Kumaritashvili, who died tragically in a training accident. Ten years ago, in 2002, the IOC memorialized the victims of 9/11, though that terrorist atrocity neither occurred during the Olympic Games nor had any connection to them. The duty of remembrance was justification enough.

“In particular, after eschewing a memorial for the murdered Israeli athletes and coaches at this year’s opening ceremony, the IOC then — and again, rightly — memorialized the victims of the 2005 London Bombings … though this terrorist atrocity, as well, had no nexus to the Olympic Games.”

Cotler’s appeal was compelling and moving, but it was unsuccessful — a fact that has surely left a stain on this summer’s Olympics.

But beyond that, it has also left many disappointed Jews around the world wondering what to do next.

After an exhausting lobbying effort supported by many world leaders, including President Obama, these disillusioned supporters are wondering whether they should lick their wounds and give up the fight — or begin anew and lobby for a minute of silence at the next Olympic games.

Here in Los Angeles, there is a Jewish group that is taking a whole different approach to honoring the victims. They will neither give up the fight nor plead with the IOC for a minute of silence.

In fact, they don’t want silence. They want to make some holy noise.

And you can bet they will do that at the 32nd annual Chabad Telethon on Sunday night, Sept. 9.

“The Rebbe taught us that the only response to darkness is to increase the light,” was how Chaim Marcus put it when I asked him why they had decided to honor victims of terror during a normally festive evening.

Marcus, the producer of the last few telethons, doesn’t think there’s a contradiction between the two. “The Chabad Telethon itself was born out of the fire that destroyed the world’s first Chabad House, in 1980 in Westwood,” he told me. “It was our way to rebuild and renew — stronger and greater than before.”

So, instead of commemorating the 11 Munich victims with silence, Chabad will celebrate their lives by “adding light to the world by encouraging our viewers to live their legacy through acts of goodness and kindness.”

Chabad Rabbi Chaim Cunin, executive producer of the telethon, adds: “This year, we will sing more, dance more and pour out our hearts more than ever on behalf of the Munich victims and all those in need.”

The tribute will include Larry King setting up a short film clip from “1972 Munich Games: Bud Greenspan Remembers,” followed by the lighting of 11 candles and the chanting of the El Maleh Rachamim mourning prayer by chazzan Yacov Lerner.

They’re hoping to have many celebrities on stage at the Saban Theatre, where the telethon will take place this year, including people like Olympic swimmers Mark Spitz, Lenny Krayzelburg and Jason Lezak; and London’s gold-medal gymnast Aly Reisman.

It’s classic Chabad to take an Olympic failure and turn it into a Jewish lesson. What they’re basically saying is: Yes, it would have been great had the IOC devoted a minute of silence to the Jewish victims, but they didn’t, and we won’t cry over it. We can do it ourselves, in our own way.

It’s true that as Jews, we want the world to love us, to understand us, to feel our pain. With our history of Holocaust trauma, we crave recognition, especially for our innocent victims. So, naturally, we wanted a billion people worldwide last month to remember that 11 athletes were murdered because they were Jews.

But being Jewish doesn’t only mean being victims. It also means being survivors; survivors who have the power to honor our victims by being more Jewish than ever.

And that’s an idea worth making a little noise over.

David Suissa is president of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal and can be reached at