Dancing Rabbis to Raise Feet and Funds

As Hurricane Katrina barreled through the Gulf Coast, Rabbi Boruch Shlomo Cunin got a frantic call from a woman in Long Beach who had lost touch with her brother, a Chabad rabbi in Metairie, a suburb of New Orleans.

It was less than a month before the annual Chabad Telethon — that quirky TV fundraiser studded with dancing rabbis and Jewish celebrities — and Cunin, the director of West Coast Chabad, was busy scrambling to put together the program for the 25th anniversary show. For the last quarter-century, the telethon has raised millions of dollars each year to support the 200 Chabad centers, its schools and programs on the West Coast.

But when Rishi Greenwald called Cunin that Monday, he decided he had no choice but to drop everything and try to locate Rabbi Yossi Nemes, one of the five Chabad emissaries in Louisiana.

It would be awhile before he got back to the telethon.

When President Bush speaks of faith-based communities stepping in and doing the work that the government had once done, he might have been speaking of private efforts of groups like Chabad, which are able to mobilize their grass-roots network faster than a bureaucracy like the U.S. government. Although Chabad was far from the only organization — religious or corporate — to provide help, Chabad’s leaders immediately felt it was their mission to do as much as possible for everyone in the region.

“That’s who we are,” said Rabbi Chaim Cunin, the director’s son and spokesperson of West Coast Chabad. “We don’t ask any questions, we’re there to respond. There was never a question if to do, it’s how to do. And goodness and kindness have to be spontaneous, and that’s what happened here.”

That commitment includes dedicating a portion of the proceeds from Sunday’s eight-hour event, broadcast live from Hollywood, to Katrina’s victims.

“It’s impossible to see the images of destruction and loss coming from the Gulf Coast and not be moved to action,” said Rabbi Baruch Shlomo Cunin. “We will continue to do everything we can to help the survivors.”

When that first call came in, few really knew what was going on in New Orleans, or that Hurricane Katrina would so thoroughly devastate a city of nearly 500,000 — 12,000 of whom are Jews. Many had believed the worst of a bad storm had already passed — and that the city had escaped the worst-case scenario. But then the levees broke, and water levels rose 20 feet, and hundreds of thousands of people were displaced from their homes — or worse.

Nemes, the missing Chabad rabbi, was at the time incommunicado, holed up on the second floor of his boarded-up house with 13 other people — family and others who had arrived seeking help.

“We prayed for the best but tried to prepare for the worst,” Nemes later wrote on the Chabad Web site. “We spent our time reading psalms, asking God to spare us, the entire Jewish community and all the people of New Orleans, and discussed issues of faith and God’s providence.”

Back in Los Angeles, Baruch Shlomo Cunin — and the world — were just about to learn of the devastation. He and his sons and others in the massive Chabad network around the world started making phone calls to locate Nemes. By 6 a.m. the next day, even as New Orleans was filling up like a bathtub, they finally discovered Nemes was safe — but thousands of others weren’t.

That same day, West Coast Chabad mobilized its Gulf Coast network of shluchim — rabbinical emissaries sent out to far-flung communities around the world — to see how it could help.

In the storm’s aftermath, West Coast Chabad raised emergency funds — more than $100,000 — and collected 100,000 doses of insulin and 15,000 antibiotic pills to fly down to the region with Dov Peres, a businessman from San Diego who has raised more than $20 million for the hurricane. Chabad centers in Louisiana, Memphis, Atlanta, Talahassee, Birmingham, Nashville, Little Rock — and, of course, Texas, where many of the displaced people ended up — also stayed open long hours, prepared to help.

Chabad West Coast sent some 100 people into the region. And on Sept. 11, it held a carnival in San Antonio for the evacuated children, in addition to opening a preschool for those too young to be absorbed in the city’s public schools.

Chabad also has pitched in with the grim but necessary work of the chevra kadisha, the religious burial society, which is working on identifying Jewish bodies to give them proper burials.

The ongoing needs of those who survived the storm will be a focus of this year’s telethon. In addition to the amalgam of celebrity guests — including actor James Caan, L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and a taped segment from the cast of the NBC sitcom, “Joey” — every hour guests like businessman Peres and Nemes and other Chabad rabbis from the region, as well as families who have been airlifted here, will tell their stories about Katrina. Callers will be able to earmark their contribution — or a portion of their contribution — to a special Katrina relief fund.

Other parts of the telethon will recap the 25 years of telethons; highlight Chabad’s other programs, like a drug rehabilitation center; and, of course, will feature the dancing rabbis.

While the telethon is not a “Katrina fundraiser,” Chaim Cunin said, he hopes that viewers are moved to donate extra money above and beyond their gifts for Chabad to Katrina victims.

“There’s a lot of hope in these stories. It’s not just doom and gloom — the human spirit has come out in ways I haven’t seen before. I can’t remember a time the private sector has shed a light on how important every contribution is. It’s really amazing.”

The 25th anniversary Chabad “Celebration 25 Telethon” will be held on Sept. 25 from 3 p.m. to midnight on KSCI-TV Channel 18 and simulcast on the Internet at www.tolife.com.