West Coast Chabad celebrates 50 years with annual telethon
It’s become Rabbi Boruch Shlomo Cunin’s token slogan: “Call the music! Call the tote!”
He belted it out after a live segment with actor Jon Voight during Chabad’s 34th annual “To Life” telethon on Sept. 7. Music blasted, the tote board displaying the amount of money raised so far was displayed, and dancers piled onto the stage, creating a sort of Chasidic mosh pit with people dancing around in circles, swinging their arms and kicking their legs. Even Voight joined in on the dancing — and after 28 years of experience, he’s nailed the tote dance down to an art form.
By the show’s end at 11 p.m., following innumerable dances and a steady rotation of appearances by celebrities and politicians, the telethon had raised $2,634,377. The amount is a little less than the $3 million collected last year, but it’s enough to pay off monies owed on its headquarters in Westwood.
The Chabad house at that site burned down in 1980, taking the lives of three people. The first telethon, 34 years ago was conceived as a way to help procure funds to rebuild the house. Cunin, the West Coast Chabad leader, said the group hasn’t forgotten that as it celebrates its golden jubilee in this part of the country.
“This year, which is our 50th year, we intend to do more,” Cunin said. “We intend to pay off the mortgage of the Chabad house. That’s a very, very urgent and important thing.”
About one-third of the telethon was live, whereas the remainder of the material was pre-recorded. Segments from the past 33 years also were peppered into the evening. It was like watching a whole reel of Chabad’s history, and it included a scripted skit featuring Carroll O’Connor, the non-Jewish star of ’70s sitcom “All in the Family,” who originally came up with the idea for Chabad to have a telethon to rebuild its headquarters years ago.
Before show time at 5 p.m., actress Leslie Grossman tweeted an Instagram photo of herself sporting a long-sleeved, black blouse and knee-length skirt and standing next to a portrait of Rebbe Menachem Mendel Schneerson: “Hey kids I am dressed like a Hasid because I am helping to host the Chabad telethon tonight.”
Grossman hosted alongside her father, attorney Marshall Grossman; radio personality and Jewish Journal columnist Dennis Prager and Voight. The telethon was filmed at KSCI-TV studios in West Los Angeles and could be viewed on KSCI, JLTV and
Chabad Telethon raises $4 million
Hollywood stars and dancing rabbis came together for the 32nd annual Chabad “To Life” Telethon on Sept. 9. Held for the first time at the Saban Theatre in Beverly Hills, the high-profile fundraiser raised approximately $4 million for Chabad of California.
“At Chabad, there’s no greater joy than the joy of giving,” declared Larry King, whose hosting duties and interviews were recorded days earlier at KCET in Burbank and shown on screens straddling the stage.
KTLA Morning News’ Sam Rubin, “Good Morning Arizona” anchor Stella Inger and comedian Elon Gold co-hosted the event live, playing to a small studio audience at the Art Deco theater.
The three-hour telethon aired locally on KTLA 5, from 8 to 11 p.m., and was carried nationwide by cable and satellite providers, as well as stations in San Diego, San Francisco, New York, New Jersey and Connecticut.
Actor Jon Voight, one of the evening’s main celebrities, remains an active supporter of Israel and Chabad, having appeared in multiple telethons.
“I’ve had many major roles in motion pictures, but one of my favorite roles is taking part in Chabad’s” yearly telethon, he said.
Onstage throughout the evening, Voight was in good spirits, surrounded by a house band, a rotating crew of people working the phone banks and an active tote board. He danced with black-suited Chabadniks young and old. “I’m learning new steps every day,” Voight said.
Then, catching his breath, he delivered his spiel, asking viewers to call the phone number that appeared on the bottom of their television screens and donate what they could.
In addition to Voight, speakers included actors Tom Arnold, David Arquette and Howie Mandel, Los Angeles County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, L.A. City Councilmen Paul Koretz and Dennis Zine, Consul General of Israel in Los Angeles David Siegel and philanthropist Stanley Black.
Among the featured performers were 11-year-old piano prodigy Ethan Bortnick, Chasidic rock-and-pop duo the 8th Day and Chasidic singer and composer Lipa Schmeltzer.
The $4.03 million raised on Sunday — last year’s telethon raised $4.2 million — will benefit the international Chasidic movement’s social services and programs, including summer camp scholarships, support for children with special needs, community outreach centers, crisis intervention and drug and alcohol rehabilitation.
Seated near L.A. Clipper forward Trey Thompkins at the phone bank, actor-comedian Arnold made his pitch for Chabad. Never shy, Arnold highlighted his past as a recovering alcoholic and drug addict when requesting donations in support of Chabad’s drug rehabilitation services.
“They do wonderful work there and they help everybody,” Arnold said.
Highlights from the Chabad “To Life” Telethon:
7:58 p.m.: Backstage, two minutes until showtime, production assistants scramble to prepare performers, including Voight and dancing rabbis, for their cue.
8 p.m.: A message from King segues into Bortnick’s piano performance of “The Star-Spangled Banner.” The rabbis follow — young men grab one another’s hands or shoulders, kicking up their feet as they dance in circles.
8:12 p.m.: Dressed in black sneakers to match his suit, comedian Gold warms up the crowd: “You don’t have to be Jewish to enjoy the Chabad Telethon, but it helps,” Gold says.
8:55 p.m.: King interviews Arquette about what it took to get sober. Building “a connection to God” and learning how to manage self-critical thinking both played a role in his road to sobriety, Arquette says.
9:10 p.m.: Consul General Siegel, City Councilman Koretz, County Supervisor Yaroslavsky and philanthropist Black share the stage with Rabbi Boruch Shlomo Cunin, director of West Coast Chabad. Black announces his own pledge for $250,000.
9:35 p.m.: Looking out at the theater’s numerous empty seats, Arnold quips from the phone bank, “How about a hand for all of Clint Eastwood’s chairs out there,” referring to Eastwood’s controversial speech at the Republican National Convention.
9:40 to 10 p.m.: Entertainment attorney and Chabad Telethon co-chairman Marshall Grossman pledges $25,000. Television producer Kevin Bright (“Friends”), who was not in attendance, pledges $180,000 and Ralphs supermarket representative Jose Martinez hands over a jumbo-check for $20,000.
10:10: An interview between King and TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal president David Suissa is screened. “Chabad means ‘love’ more than anything,” Suissa says.
10:55 p.m.: The tote board jumps to more than $4 million for the evening’s final total. The rabbis return for a final dance — until next year.
Jerry Lewis ousted as MDA telethon host
Viewers of the Muscular Dystrophy Association’s telethon will see a new host for the first time in more than four decades as Jerry Lewis is dismissed, Los Angeles Times reports.
For the first time in 45 years, Jerry Lewis will not be pleading for donations in front of a camera Labor Day weekend after he was abruptly dismissed as the host of the Muscular Dystrophy Assn.‘s telethon, an event that drew attention to the childhood disease and in its heyday was an annual television highlight.
The group said the 85-year-old legendary comedian would not appear on this year’s telethon, and would no longer serve as its national chairman, a position he held for nearly 60 years. The telethons have raised nearly $2.5 billion, the MDA said.
The announcement and the mysterious circumstances surrounding Lewis’ departure provoked an outcry from comedians and other performers, who still widely revere him for his groundbreaking routines and public service.
Read more at LATimes.com.
Federation adds service to Super Sunday
The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles is asking community members to give time and elbow grease in addition to what’s in their pockets.
On Super Sunday, Feb. 13, the day traditionally set aside for a volunteer-staffed phone-a-thon to kick off Federation’s annual campaign, Federation is organizing a day of volunteering, offering options to help beautify Los Angeles, feed the hungry or train for longer-term community service projects.
Federation expects about 500 volunteers for the day, some of them participating in service projects, some making solicitation phone calls and some doing both.
“The idea is you spend two hours working in the community, and then two hours on the telephone, and you can say to the people you’re calling, ‘I just spent two hours giving out food at SOVA or cleaning up this school,’ ” Federation President Jay Sanderson said. “It will give the calls more meaning and make Super Sunday more community driven.”
Last year, Super Sunday raised $4.5 million.
The new component comes as part of the Federation’s centennial year celebrations. Super Sunday will be followed by four other service days throughout the year.
Online registration closes Friday, Feb. 11, and slots for some projects are already filled.
Volunteers on Super Sunday will prepare food for people with HIV/AIDS through Project Chicken Soup, help makeover the Hillel at Cal State University, Northridge, beautify a public elementary school, assemble school supplies for needy families served by Tomchei Shabbos and sort food donations at Jewish Family Service’s SOVA food pantry.
Space is still available at a family art project, where parents and kids will help create a quilt to be sent to a disadvantaged school in Jerusalem and at a tour of the Mount Zion Cemetery in East Los Angeles, where many founders of the L.A. Jewish community are buried. A community service fair at the Bernard Milken Jewish Community Campus in West Hills will highlight year-round service opportunities, and training will be offered to become a KOREH L.A. literacy tutor for disadvantaged kids.
Federation drops security grants for shuls; Farmar shoots, scores for Chabad
Federation Drops Grants to Provide Security for High Holy Days at Small Synagogues
In 2006, in the wake of Israel’s war with Hezbollah, Jewish communities throughout the Diaspora were on edge. A lone gunman had already killed one and wounded five at a Seattle Jewish center, and many were concerned that High Holy Days could make Jews an easy mark.
The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles responded by granting $1,000 each to nearly 150 small synagogues to be used for High Holy Day security.
This year, The Federation will not be offering those grants.
“This year, we decided we wouldn’t do it again,” said John Fishel, Federation president. “What we are doing, and will continue to do, is in-depth security analyses with Jewish schools throughout Los Angeles, which is not really focused on getting a guard for the holiday. We think focusing on venues that on a daily basis have children and youth and could be targets is a better use of community resources.”
Concern about security at services and how to fund it persists among at least some of the small synagogues, which will now need to reallocate resources or decide to go without.
“It will be extremely difficult to provide security,” said Andrew Friedman, president of the 100-member Congregation Bais Naftoli. “I’m not going to say we are not going to for two reasons: (a) we may, and (b) I don’t want the terrorist to know we will not provide security. We may — but it will be a great financial burden.”
Though 2008 has been marked by several high-profile anti-Semitic attacks, including the firebombing of The New JCC at Milken, the global threat against Jews seems to have lessened since summer 2006.
Fishel said that in such a noncrisis atmosphere, the security briefing co-sponsored annually by the Anti-Defamation League and L.A. Councilman Jack Weiss is sufficient for improving cautionary measures during holiday season. The briefing, held last Friday at the Skirball Cultural Center, instructed the 80 synagogue and Jewish institutional leaders attending on how to increase security for the High Holy Days and improve it throughout the year. Amanda Susskind, ADL regional director, said all members of the Jewish community bear a responsibility in protecting against threats.
“Everyone who works at a Jewish institution is part security officer,” she said.
The ADL offers a manual, “Protecting Your Jewish Institution,” on its Web site, www.adl.org/security.
— Brad A. Greenberg, Senior Writer
Chabad Telethon Raises $8 Million
Los Angeles Lakers star Jordan Farmar shoots 36 baskets in 90 seconds to raise $64,800 for Chabad. Apparel executive Masud Sarshar offered the challenge
Chabad’s “To Life” telethon raised more than $8 million Sunday night — some of it due to amazing basketball shooting by Lakers star Jordan Formar.
Farmar, just back from Israel, shot 36 baskets (‘double chai’) in 90 seconds to raise over $64K for the organization. Apparel exec Masud Sashar offered to donate $1800 from every basket the UCLA alum shot.
The telethon, which was broadcast nationally on the AmericanLife TV Network, featured Chabad rabbis dancing on stage with high-profile donors such as former Beverly Hills Mayor Jimmy Delshad. The mayor, a Persian Jew, contributed $1,800 and made a plea in his native Farsi for others to donate.
The actor Jon Voight, making his 18th appearance on the Chabad telethon, was given a Lubavitch-style black hat. Voight also made a plug for Republican presidential candidate John McCain.
Other celebrities featured on the show included Martin Landau, James Cromwell, Camryn Manheim, Mimi Rogers, JoBeth Williams, Tom Arnold, Kellie Martin and Merrin Dungey. Pre-taped messages of support came from Larry King, Jackie Mason, Howie Mandel and Regis Philbin.
The $8,092,269 raised during the telethon will be used to support, among other large-scale religious and philanthropic projects, the Chabad Residential Drug Treatment Center in Los Angeles, as well as Chabad’s Camp Gan Israel, which has been a safe haven for Israeli girls escaping rocket attacks in Sderot.
— Dennis Wilen, Web Director, with contributions from Jewish Telegraphic Agency
Adat Ari El Completes New Gym
Adat Ari El Day School has completed the installation of a state-of-the-art sports pavilion. The facility includes a covered basketball court and climbing wall, among other features, and enables students to participate in physical activity year round.
Haim Linder, the school’s head physical education teacher, said the temperature in the pavilion is about 20 degrees cooler than the outside temperature — important during the Valley’s hot, summer days.
“It’s a big milestone for our school,” he said.
Linder said the sports facility would also help ensure that students stay focused, because research shows that children who are physically active are better able to concentrate on academics.
Additionally, the facility gives the school’s sports teams a place to practice. The pavilion will be named after Mannon Kaplan — one of the founder’s of the school — and in memory of his wife, Sybil. The Kaplan family funded the project and a dedication and thank you ceremony will be held at the school on Sept. 21.
— Lilly Fowler, Contributing Writer
Wise moves jazz up Chabad telethon
When the 2008 Chabad “To Life” telethon kicks off at 4 p.m. Sunday on KCAL 9, it promises a new look courtesy of a show runner with an unusual background.
Daniel S. Wise, 44, is an Orthodox rabbi who for several years had his own yeshiva in Troy, N.Y. Lately he has been pursuing a career in musical theater and related arts ventures.
“I don’t like the idea of making a living from religion — it interferes with the religion,” he said during a telephone interview.
“I’m not a rabbi because I don’t work on Shavuot,” he joked.
Wise was invited to help polish the Chabad production, which first aired in 1980. The telethon will still feature plenty of the traditional celebrity guests, he said, including several hours live with Larry King. But it also will have more filmed segments, shot around the globe, which tell Chabad’s story.
There will be more prerecorded music, too.
“Underneath a lot of the speeches, we’re creating an underscore,” he said. “There will be original compositions, some based on Jewish melodies and some that are original but based on Jewish style.”
The telethon will also feature more klezmer bands and “two of the best Russian dancers in America,” Wise said.
In general, the behind-the-scenes production staff will be more specialized and experienced in specific duties than in the past.
But this won’t interfere with the joyful, spontaneous dancing that is so much of the telethon’s appeal and reason for success. Last year’s telethon netted nearly $7.2 million.
Educated from a young age in Chasidic and Lithuanian yeshivas in Brooklyn, Wise didn’t even have a television at home. Still, he freelanced comedy bits to “Saturday Night Live.”
“I had the chutzpah to find out who was the producer and call up,” he recalled. “So they put me through to Lorne Michaels’ secretary, and I said I have something and don’t worry, he knows me. I showed up at his office and the secretary said to leave it. I got a call back, and then a letter to sign and a check later. I used the name Jeffrey Daniels because at the time it was a little taboo for a yeshiva boy to write for television.”
While taking violin lessons at The Juilliard School, Wise became interested in musical theater. He has since followed two paths in that field — as a creative producer, responsible for some projects from conception to staging, and as an international presenter of successful Broadway shows.
He was involved in bringing a successful English-language production of “42nd Street” to a 2,500-seat Moscow theater in fall 2002, and he helped organize a Chinese production of “Rent.” Wise also put together an international concert tour for rock pioneer Chuck Berry, which was staged like a theatrical production. As a result of their friendship, he’s now producing Berry’s first album of new material in decades.
But Wise is especially proud of “Shlomo,” a musical based on the life of “Singing Rabbi” Shlomo Carlebach, which he co-conceived, wrote the book for and produced. It debuted in early 2007 as a National Yiddish Theatre presentation at the Jewish Community Center in Manhattan. A Broadway engagement and national tour are in the works, he says.
“We discovered his life had a theatrical arc,” Wise said. “He had a life story that was also the story of the Jewish journey from the ashes of the Holocaust to the 1980s and 1990s. And the music is electrifying and transformative.”
The Chabad “To Life” Telethon airs Sunday, Sept. 14, 4-10 p.m. on KCAL 9.
Chabadmania, Ed Asner, Jewish Big Brothers and Sisters
The Chabad Telethon. You’ve heard of it, you’ve seen the banners all over town, you recognize the dancing rabbi image, maybe you caught snatches of the televised event, and maybe you even picked up the phone and made a pledge. But if you’ve never been to the studio during the taping of the six-hour fundraising extravaganza, you haven’t really experienced it.
I spent two hours at KCET studios on Sunday, Sept. 9, and if I hadn’t had to be somewhere else that evening, I would have gladly stayed longer. The atmosphere burst with infectious energy. The lounge teemed with smiling rabbis, happy sponsors and jovial performers.
Televisions displayed the celebration of life going on in the building next door and the crowd alternated between watching, commenting, socializing and eating (there was a fully catered kosher(!) meal of turkey, stuffing and mashed potatoes).
The stage buzzed with fervent activity, and not just between acts. I expected the place to grow quiet during the taping, with the small audience sitting in a respectful hush, the crew moving about soundlessly. But not at the Chabad Telethon.
People moved in and out of their seats in the separated women’s and men’s sections. A hodgepodge of presenters, performers and spectators crowded around the sets, chattering. Everyone conversed, and not in whispers.
But the constant buzz did not detract from the main event unfolding on the colorful set before us. Long-time Chabad friend and avid supporter Jon Voight stumbled to find his words and to find the right camera to face, but then he delivered a heart-felt plea for donations to support the many incredible services Chabad provides to the Los Angeles community.
Host Elon Gold made a few funnies. Dennis Prager lent his words of wisdom. Six-year-old prodigy Ethan Bortnick sang a charming tune he wrote about birds of the world, and little vest-clad Yakov Gerstner performed with astonishing passion a duet with Mordechai Ben David.
Viewers pledged close to $7.2 million to Chabad, compared to last year’s $6 million. I bet the rabbis were dancing up a storm when they tallied that figure!
— Dikla Kadosh, Contributing Writer
Scene and Heard …
Outspoken activist and prolific actor Ed Asner received an Emmy nomination for his role in “The Christmas Card.” The romantic tale focuses on a U.S. soldier stationed in Afghanistan whose life changes when he receives a holiday greeting from a mysterious woman in California.
Although he did not win the Emmy on Sept. 16, during the broadcast he did join his “Roots!” castmates for a tribute to the 30th anniversary of the groundbreaking miniseries (Asner played the slave ship’s captain, Thomas Davies).
To date, Asner has won a whopping seven Emmys and five Golden Globes and is almost as well known for his political views as he is for creating the legendary role of Lou Grant on “The Mary Tyler Moore Show.” Mazel tov!
It’s a musical world — from the bimah to the stage — and learning to chant trope may be the new Hollywood ticket. During the High Holy Days of her youth, Lizzie Weiss was a cantorial soloist divinely inspired by Jewish music. Encouraged by her mentor, Cantor Yonah Kliger, Weiss led the New Emanuel Minyan, an intimate and musical alternative service at Temple Emanuel in Beverly Hills. This week, the Los Angeles native stars as the brainy Martha Cox in a Toronto stage production of the mega-success “High School Musical.” As reported in Canada’s Jewish Tribune, Weiss credits her Jewish roots and cantorial training for launching her professional singing career. But her newfound success comes at a price. With eight performances a week under her belt, Weiss says she’s missing leading High Holy Days services at home, but she hoped to make it to synagogue despite her rigid schedule: “This will be the first time in eight years that I won’t be on the bimah singing.”
Chabad of the Conejo celebrated a historic groundbreaking Sept. 9 — the beginning of construction for the long-anticipated New Chabad of the Conejo Community Campus on Canwood Street in Agoura Hills. They plan to build a bustling Center for Jewish Life and then demolish their current home, laying the foundation for a new synagogue that will take its place. Rabbi Moshe Bryski, the Chabad’s executive director, hopes fundraising efforts will continue while the project is under way.
“The critical thing now is for us to get the word out with greater urgency and have this campaign generate the excitement it needs and deserves,” he said in a statement. “We’ve come a long way over the past 28 years, but the greatest days for Chabad of the Conejo are yet to come.” From his mouth to God’s ears …
Margy Feldman is a gal who’s still breakin’ the glass ceiling. Honored for her achievements in business, the CEO and president of Jewish Big Brothers Big Sisters of Greater Los Angeles was chosen as the nonprofit executive director of the year for Women in Business (WIB). The WIB Awards recognize individuals who contribute to the economic vitality of Southern California.
Chabad Telethon Sunday, ‘Shadow of Doubt’
Only two more weeks until Yom Kippur … are you mentally and emotionally prepared? Tackling the weighty topics of repentance and forgiveness can seem like a mighty task, but with the entertaining inspiration of “The Gates Are Closing” you can start thinking and discussing those issues long before the holy day arrives. The staged reading of the play by Merle Feld will be directed by Temple Emanuel congregant and seasoned professional director Deborah LaVine. Set in a synagogue on Yom Kippur, the play illuminates the struggles of 10 characters of various ages, backgrounds and professions with issues of identity, betrayal and forgiveness.
8 p.m. Selichot Service at 10 p.m. Free. Temple Emanuel, 8844 Burton Way, Beverly Hills. (310) 288-3742.
To Life! To Life! L’Chaim! The joyous, dancing-rabbi-filled, celebrity-guest-infused, mitzvah-inspiring Chabad “To Life” Telethon is taking over Channel 9 for six hours of giving today, from 4 p.m. to 10 p.m. Actor and comedian Elon Gold will host the mega celebration and will be joined by stand-up comedian Mark Schiff, broadcaster Larry King, actor Jon Voight, singer/actress Mare Winningham, radio personality Dennis Prager and Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa.
Last year’s live broadcast raised more than $6 million for Chabad’s educational and nonsectarian social services, which include summer camps, drug and alcohol rehabilitation, crisis intervention, senior programs and humanitarian services. Tune in to life, tune in to giving, tune in to the telethon (and don’t forget to grab your check book before you settle into the couch)!
The Geffen Playhouse calls Wendy Wasserstein’s final play, “Third,” “the jewel in their season’s crown.” The acclaimed playwright, who died unexpectedly of cancer at the age of 55, wrote poignant plays with strong intellectual heroines and relevant political discourses. Before the lights of Broadway were dimmed in her honor, Wasserstein completed “Third,” a dramatic piece about a modern, politically correct female professor who reveals her own prejudices when she accuses a “red state” jock student of plagiarizing his brilliant paper on King Lear. Starring Christine Lahti, this West Coast premiere promises to be a real highlight of the Geffen’s repertoire.
Chabad Taps Elon Gold, Shelly Berman for 26th Telethon
The sight of dancing rabbis on television has always been slightly funny — if not “ha-ha” funny, then a “that’s kind of interesting” kind of funny.
But this year’s 26th annual Chabad “To Life” telethon on Sept. 10 hopes to offer some real laughs, with host entertainer Shelley Berman (whose credits stretch from “The Ed Sullivan Show” to “Curb Your Enthusiasm” and “Boston Legal”) and co-host comedian Elon Gold (“Stacked,” “The In-Laws”).
Why did Chabad get these two entertainers to host the six-hour show?
Last year, semi-regular host Jon Voight had to opt out because he was filming two movies, so Dennis Prager hosted (Prager and Voight both will be in attendance this year). Berman and Gold both appeared on the telecast and impressed the hosts.
“Last year we were very moved and inspired by the story [Shelley] told about his own son, who had unfortunately passed away just before his bar mitzvah and how Chabad was there at this time for him,” said Rabbi Chaim Cunin, public relations director for West Coast Chabad. Over the years, Berman became more involved with Chabad, even hosting a seder at the Malibu center, so they asked if he’d host the telethon. “He just turned 80, and we asked if he had the koach for it,” said Cunin, using the Hebrew word for strength.
“I could stand 24-hours for Chabad,” Berman told the rabbi.
Berman’s dedication notwithstanding, producers also decided to bring in Gold, 35, to co-host the live fundraiser.
“Elon will bring a nice fresh face to the telethon,” Cunin said.
“We’re going to add some fun and funny to it,” Gold told The Journal. He is hoping to bring some of his “J-list” (Jewish celeb friends) and, this being Hollywood, he can’t confirm anyone, but he’s put in calls to Josh Malina, Jonathan Silverman and Bob Saget.
“I want to make it more of a fun, hip, Hollywood kind of thing,” Gold said.
The Hollywood kind of thing to Gold means him doing some of his bit, and adding some new jokes to it, such as:
- The Chabad Telethon — the only telethon where you can’t spot Matisyahu in the crowd.
- The Chabad Telethon — the only telethon where men dancing with each other doesn’t raise eyebrows — it raises money.
- The Chabad Telethon — the only telethon that God TiVos.
Gold, who just sold a TV pilot and is still doing stand-up, is planning to add skits and bits to the telethon, like going into the studio audience or onto the street asking people to empty their pockets, or maybe playing a little celebrity poker on the side to raise money for Chabad.
In the past, “To Life” has raised upward of $6.5 million annually to support West Coast Chabad’s 200 centers, its schools and programs on the West Coast, including a much-touted drug rehab center.
This year’s broadcast will include appearances by James Caan, Keith David, Emilio Estevez, Craig Ferguson, Elliott Gould and Regis Philbin, as well as community leaders including Los Angeles’ Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, Sheriff Lee Baca and City Attorney Rocky Delgadillo. Rabbi Marvin Hier, dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, and John Fishel, president of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, will also appear.
The broadcast will include a tribute to the comedian and TV star Jan Murray, who passed away in July. Murray helped launch the telethon in 1980 with his friend, Carroll O’Connor, and continued to serve as its host through 1996.
On a rare serious note, Gold says he’s hosting because Chabad is an amazing organization.
“I love Chabad, because anytime as a comedian I’m touring at a strange city, I always have place to go to shul and to have a nice Friday night meal, warm family company, and that’s amazing thing, in addition to everything else they do. I need them spiritually, and they’re always there for me.”
The Chabad “To Life” Telethon can be seen on a live Web cast at www.ToLife.com, and will also run on the following TV stations:
Los Angeles: KCAL Channel 9; San Diego: KUSI Channel 9; San Francisco: KTSF Channel 26; Las Vegas: KVMY Channel 12; New York/New Jersey/Connecticut: WLNY Channel 55; Nationwide: Dish Network 9601
–Amy Klein, Religion Editor
‘Slaves’ to Drugs Find Help in Chabad
When John Ostlund was 33, a judge offered him a choice: Quit heroin or lose your 3-year-old daughter.
Ostlund chose heroin.
Four years later, Ostlund had to make another decision. The 37-year-old had been a drug addict for 25 years and had spent 11 years in prison. Now it was up to him: Get off drugs or die.
“And by a miracle, within 24 hours, I was a client at Chabad,” Ostlund said.
Now sober for seven years, Ostlund has spent the last six of them working at the Chabad Residential Treatment Centers (CRTC), the rehabilitation organization he credits with saving his life. He is now married, gainfully employed, happy and sober.
When you think Chabad, Ostlund is not exactly what comes to mind: Firstly, instead of wearing a black hat, he sports tattoos, a ponytail and an earring; secondly, Ostlund is not Jewish.
That’s probably why Ostlund and other recovering addicts from the CRTC are touted so heavily at Chabad’s telethons. This year’s 24th annual telethon takes place on Sept. 12, and Chabad hopes exceed the more than $6 million they raised last year.
At the telethon, CRTC clients and their families will appear on stage every half-hour to talk about their stories and the center. Telethon organizers hope that by putting this humanistic, nonsectarian face on a very Jewish organization they will open the hearts — and the purse strings — of the people watching in the four major markets that the telethon will air: Los Angeles, San Francisco, New York and Las Vegas, as well as on the satellite Dish Network.
But in terms of numbers, the CRTC’s reach is relatively small. It can only service 44 people at a time (as opposed to Beit T’Shuvah, the other prominent Jewish rehabilitation center in Los Angeles, which has space for 120), and comprises a small portion of Chabad’s programs, which primarily aim at reconnecting Jews with their Judaism.
Yet when it comes to the telethon, CRTC’s public relations value is immeasurable. CRTC functions give Chabad a trendy, modern image, as if to say these men who dance around in frock coats and black hats have their fingers on the pulse of today’s society.
Only about $1.1 million of the money raised at the telethon goes to CRTC, funding half its annual budget of $2.2 million. The rest comes from client fees ($4,900 a month, or less for those who can’t afford it), private donations and county and state funds, which account for approximately $700,000 of CRTC’s budget. More than 75 percent of CRTC’s clients are on a reduced-fee plan of some kind.
The other $5 million of the funds raised at the telethon go to supporting emergency counseling and therapy, the free burial fund, Chabad’s prison chaplaincy program, scholarships for needy families at Chabad schools, seed money for new regional Chabad centers and university outreach and adult education.
Rabbi Boruch Shlomo Cunin, director of West Coast Chabad Lubavitch, started the drug and alcohol treatment center in 1973, after he noticed an abundance of drug use and a dearth of treatment centers.
“People were coming into the Chabad House [in Westwood] stoned and on terrible trips, and there wasn’t anyone in the Jewish community dealing with it,” said Mendy Cunin, Boruch Shlomo Cunin’s son. “[My father] realized there were underlying causes, and the problems were not the drugs or the alcohol, but the pain that was present that they weren’t dealing with properly.”
CRTC currently occupies a three-building complex on Olympic Boulevard in the Miracle Mile area. It can handle up to 44 men at a time, and another 25 in its sober-living facility, which is where clients can go after finishing Chabad’s mandatory six months of treatment, if they feel they need additional assistance. Over the years they have helped more than 4,000 people.
According to the reports Chabad submits to the county, 60 percent of its clients stay off drugs after they leave CRTC.
The program has five components: clinical, which includes individual, group and family therapy with licensed psychologists; meetings that study the 12-steps of Narcotics Anonymous and Alcoholics Anonymous; physical activity, which includes hikes; spirituality, an all-encompassing program that includes healthy kosher food, the peaceful and verdant center garden, as well as the optional Torah classes offered to everyone; and vocational counseling, which includes assistance in resume-building, interviewing skills, money management and basic computer skills. CRTC also has a team of acupuncturists who come to the complex once a week to treat addiction, as well as physical ailments.
CRTC is a melting pot of people and cultures. In one bedroom, a small cross on a chain hangs next to a bed; other rooms have Hebrew prayer books in them. There are black, Latino and Asian clients (as CRTC likes to call its residents) and Orthodox-looking Jews. Some clients look as if they just arrived from Wall Street, others like they were dragged in from Skid Row. There are young, hip clients and paunchy middle-aged ones.
“We get all types,” said Donna Miller, CRTC’s clinical director.
The center has to make its Jewish component voluntary, not compulsory because it accepts county funds, including funds that come from Proposition 36, which sends those who have been arrested for drug-related offenses to rehabilitation instead of prison. (Conversely, Beit T’Shuvah, which also has a strong faith-based component, makes its faith-based counseling mandatory for all its Jewish and non-Jewish clients, so it is not eligible for county funds, and relies solely on client fees of $3,000 a month and private donations.)
CRTC is the only solely kosher live-in treatment program in California (although the Tarzana Treatment Center and Beit T’Shuvah will bring in kosher food for clients if necessary) making it a fitting treatment center for observant Jews who are addicts.
“It can be anywhere from 60 percent Jewish to 75 percent Jewish,” Miller said. “But we try to save lives here. We don’t say, ‘Are you Jewish?'”
Nevertheless, Miller said that those who need a kosher facility will be accommodated faster than those who do not.
“People come here, and it is a very spiritual place,” Miller said. “It’s very healing. Some programs tear you down to bring you up. We just bring you up.”
The cornerstone of CRTC’s spiritual component is Chasidic philosophies that emphasize the worth of every individual. They are taught through the study of books like “Toward a Meaningful Life” by Simon Jacobson, and “Bringing Heaven Down to Earth” by Tzvi Freeman.
Mendy Cunin encourages clients to think of their journey to recovery as one of yetziat mitrayim — the exodus from Egypt, with “Egypt” being their slavery to drugs. Cunin also encourages them to love God, fear God and rely on God and to take a cheshbon hanefesh, an accounting of the soul, so that they can feel responsible for everything in their lives, both good and bad.
“To graduate [the six-month program] and change from someone who is dependent on substances to deal with challenges to become a self-inspired human being, you need a lot of tools,” he continued. “So we share this age-old wisdom with them.”
For some of the clients, like Ostlund, CRTC is their first encounter with religious Jews. While the religious component of the program is not compulsory, it still appears to be an invigorating part of the program for all participants, Jewish or not.
On the day The Journal visited the center, the Torah class had as many attendees as the 12-step class, and in the break between classes, many of the clients got out the shofars they had made the day before in a shofar factory workshop and started blowing. They also greeted Mendy Cunin by spontaneously starting up a Chasidic niggun (wordless melody), which they continued singing as he hugged them hello.
“My connection with a Higher Power is so much greater now than when I came,” said Serge, 33, who recently completed the program. “Being here and being involved with the rabbis really helped me to nurture my spirituality, and that is where the cornerstone of the recovery is.”
For more information about CRTC, call (323) 965-1365.
Chabad’s 24th annual “L’Chaim-to Life!” telethon will be broadcast live Sept. 12 from 5 p.m. to midnight in Los Angeles on KCAL Channel 9.
New Producers Join Chabad Telethon
Chabad’s annual "L’Chaim — To Life!" telethon will look a little different this Sept. 14 since two new producers are helming the 23-year-old fundraiser.
Barry Silver, who worked on "The Howie Mandel Show" and "The Tonight Show with Jay Leno," and Michael G. Levin, who worked as a news producer for many years, have taken over production of the telethon from veteran producers Jeff and Jerry Cutler and associate producer Andrew Martin.
The telethon, broadcast annually in August or September and watched by 20 million people nationwide, is Chabad’s largest fundraiser, bringing in more than $5 million for Chabad programs. While the funds raised at the telethon do not support already existing individual Chabad houses, they are used to support the establishment costs of new Chabad houses and the Chabad infrastructure in California, which includes a girls’ day school and a drug rehabilitation center.
Over the years, the show has attracted A-list celebrities like Academy Award-winner Jon Voight and the cast of "Friends," who tout Chabad’s commitment to social justice causes and urge viewers to phone in their donations. The show is also famous for its rabbis, lead by Rabbi Boruch Shlomo Cunin, the director of West Coast Chabad-Lubavitch, who join hands and dance the hora every time a new figure is displayed on the tote board.
While the basic format of the telethon — with its various segments of celebrity pitches, Jewish entertainment, taped greeting and, of course, those spirited horas — will remain the same, Silver and Levin have made some changes to the show this year.
Celebrities will not only appear for their five-minute segments, but actors like Jeffrey Tambor ("The Larry Sanders Show") and Mindy Sterling ("Austin Powers") will lend their talent for 60 to 90 minutes. There will also be more segments devoted to people who have been helped by Chabad over the years.
While in the past, these segments have typically focused on Chabad programs, this year’s program will concentrate on Chabad people, for example, following rabbis as they go about their "crisis intervention work" and filming inmates in state prison who have been touched by Chabad. The show will also feature more comedy sketches than in the past.
Rabbi Chaim Cunin, Chabad’s public relations director, said that the organization was able to expand the range of segments this year since the show attracted more collaborators than in the past, including Kevin Bright, executive producer and creator of "Friends," who is joining the telethon as a creative executive and segment producer.
"In the past, the telethon was run by a group of seven or 10 people that put in 24 hours a day to make it happen," Chaim Cunin said. "This year there are 40 people involved, and they all have their staff, so there are 150 people who are involved and working toward the telethon."
So far, the list of celebrities who will be appearing on the telethon include Martin Sheen, Regis Philbin, Serena Williams, Magic Johnson, Howie Mandel, "Spy Kids’" Darryl Sabara and the cast of "Friends."
The Chabad Telethon was started 23 years ago, when Jefferson "Jeff" Cutler came to the West Coast Chabad-Lubavitch Headquarters in Westwood, hoping to do a documentary about Chabad, when her mission changed.
"We were putting our crew together, meanwhile a Chabad house burned down and three men were killed in the fire," Jeff Cutler said. "Rabbi Shlomo Cunin called my husband and asked if we could put something together across the street in a tent. We put together a one-act play, Arthur Hiller directed it, Ed Asner and Leonard Nimoy were in it, and it made a million dollars. We were rehearsing it during the day, and Rabbi Cunin asked us ‘Have you ever produced a telethon?’ We said ‘no,’ and he said, ‘Well, you’re going to!’" In six weeks we put together a four-hour telethon with Jan Murray as the host, and we made another million dollars. It was a very successful, amazing time, and we made it an annual show."
However, last year Jeff and her husband, Jerry, who produced the show for 22 years and were responsible for many of the big celebrity names the show attracted, along with Martin, who had worked on the telethon for 18 years, left citing difficult working conditions.
"’Severing ties’ sounds sinister. No, they just decided to do their thing and we didn’t want to be part of it. We are still friends [with the Cunins] but his children got much too involved, and my wife felt stifled," Jerry Cutler said.
"Chabad respects them and their decision to move on and wishes them well in their future endeavors," said Chaim Cunin.
Chabad’s "L’Chaim — To Life" Telethon will air Sept. 14 on KCAL 9, from 5 p.m.-midnight.
Chabad of California’s 22nd annual “L’Chaim to Life Telethon,” hosted by Dennis Prager, was humming along nicely with a long roster of talent that included classic actors James Caan and Elliott Gould, comic actor Dom DeLuise and Israeli singer David “Dudu” Fisher. Then 10:30 p.m. rolls around and the KCET soundstage — where the telethon is broadcast — went amok. Enter the Sand Man.
Yes, Hollywood’s most bankable comic actor, Adam Sandler — as in “The Waterboy,” “Big Daddy” and “Mr. Deeds.” While he didn’t pander to his Jewish audience with a performance of “The Chanukah Song,” Sandler did show some support for his pal, Arthur Brooks, who belted out his soothing-as-chicken soup rendition of “My Yiddishe Mama.”
“You dance amazing, rabbi,” Sandler told Chabad patriarch Rabbi Boruch Shlomo Cunin onstage, as Cunin and sons whirled around the bewildered “Happy Gilmore” star.
Sandler, who is known for not giving interviews, nonetheless said a few words to The Circuit.
“I’m glad to be here and I’m honored to be here,” he said.
Sandler was not the only surprise guest of the evening. Arguably the most triumphant moment of the evening came when singer Neil Diamond melted hearts by singing “America” from “The Jazz Singer.” Hot off his performance, Diamond told The Circuit that his Chabad experience was “terrific. It was a wonderful time.”
In the VIP room, The Circuit caught up with other notables happy to support Chabad.
“Their persistence intelligence, energy, spirit, heart and soul” is what attracted Gould, who played legendary gumshoe Philip Marlowe in Robert Altman’s “Long Goodbye” and looked very Chandleresque in his floppy gray Stetson.
Caan, the gritty actor who shined in “The Godfather” and “Honeymoon in Vegas,” told The Circuit that Chabad’s drug rehab facilities helped his late sister, Barbara Caan Licker, who lost her battle with leukemia in 1981.
The “Brian’s Song” star affectionly recalled being prodded by her to attend High Holiday services. “She used to tell me, ‘Put on your blue suit, go to the Beverly Hills Hotel.'”
Also touched by Chabad’s good deeds: Dmitriy Salita, who will be fighting at Mandalay Bay in Vegas on Sept. 13, told The Circuit, “Chabad is what got me involved in Judaism. They turned my life around,” said the 20-year-old junior welterweight and Russian immigrant who gave props to Rabbi Zalman Lieberoff of Chabad of Flatbush in Brooklyn for showing him the Jewish way.
Looking grownup in his suit and tie was 10-year-old Daryl Sabara of the “Spy Kids” movies.
“I’m here to say some Jewish prayers and talk to the crowd,” said the redheaded Sabara, of German and Russian Jewish descent. Later onstage, the dancing Chabadniks turned the spy kid into a sky kid when they began hoisting him up in the air.
Onstage, freewheeling rap sensation Casanova was cool as a cuke as he stalked the phone banks and freestyled rhymes about the volunteers. But behind the scenes, the starstruck Casanova freaked when he recognized Gould. Gould came over and the two shared a moment of conversation.
“It’s an honor to be here again among my Jewish brethren,” said the rapper, who was once a wrestler named Oscar for the former WWF and has played the telethon on many occasions in the past decade. “I find Chabad awesome, and I look forward to coming back again,” he said
The Circuit also hung out between performances with Sephardic singing sensation Jo Amar, who flew in from Israel just to sing his signature “Barcelona” on the seven-hour program, reggae singer Elan and members of Rebbe Soul. Elan, who sang “Nothing Is Worth Losing You (Jerusalem)” and “Praises” on the telecast, is a reggae-rooted pop-rock-soul pastiche being groomed in the Shaggy tradition, with two tracks on the upcoming Santana album.
Elan’s connection with Chabad is personal. While on tour in Australia during Passover 1997, Elan found himself at Coffs Harbor, four hours from Brisbon.
“We were literally in the middle of nowhere,” Elan said. That’s where Chabad of Byron Bay came in, including him in their holiday services.
Ditto on an occasion when Elan and wife, Orly, were vacationing in Hawaii over Simchat Torah.
“They attend shul in Hawaiian shirts and Bermuda shorts,” mused Elan of that Chabad’s constituency. “If I’m on tour, I always have a place to go.”
Actor Robert Guillaume (“Benson”), game show host Peter Marshall (“Hollywood Squares”) and California Rep. Brad Sherman (D-Dist. 24), were among the recognizables circulating through the VIP room. Also greeting fans was Fyvush Finkel (“Boston Public”), who has been the telethon’s master of ceremonies for the last three years, and was now the recipient of Chabad’s L’Chaim-To Life! Humanitarian Award.
Honorary Chabadnik and Oscar-winning actor Jon Voight once again proved himself the “Midnight Cowboy,” staying up and partying till the telethon’s midnight close, when Chabad scored its biggest grand total ever: $5,473,793 (edging last year’s $5,104,533).
As usual, Chabad knew how to throw a fundraiser party. Those in attendance stayed all night long. Perhaps Cassanova summed up the evening’s spirit with his economical exclamation: “Chabad rocks!” — Gaby Wenig contributed to this report.
About 200 people attended the gala dinner for the Southern California Jewish Center gala at the Beverly Hilton for the 22 Israeli victims of terror visiting Los Angeles. Attendees included a wide roster of celebrities and community members, such as Buzz Aldrin, Tom Arnold, Jaime Pressly, Renee Taylor, Joseph Bologna, Susan Blakely, Lanie Kazan, Charlene Tilton, Tina Louise, Leah Remini, David Suissa and Shelley Ventura-Cohen.
The event was chaired by Rabbi Shimon and Rebbetzin Vered Kashani from the Southern California Jewish Center. CNN anchor Jim Moret was the master of ceremonies, and Oscar-winner Jon Voight gave the keynote address.
Each of the victims of terror was awarded a medal in commemoration of their visit to Los Angeles, and a video presentation was shown of the impact of the terror attacks on the lives of the victims.
“I think it’s very important that we support the victims of terror,” Voight said. “It is important to put a face to the events and to realize the horror of them and stand up and speak out against them.”
“Normally we are here to honor people who play heroes,” said Arnold, referring to the fact that the Beverly Hilton is the home of the Golden Globe Awards. “So it’s good to be here to honor actual heroes themselves.” — GW
Stanley Gold has been elected chairman of USC’s Board of Trustees replacing John C. Argue, who died Aug. 10. The president and CEO of Shamrock Holdings Inc. and nine-year USC boardmember will assume leadership immediately.
Gold, who graduated from the USC Law School in 1967, joined the USC board in 1993 and has been vice chairman since June 2002.
He is a governor and former chairman of the board of the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion and serves on the board of councilors of the USC Law School, board of overseers of the Keck School of Medicine of USC and the board of the Walt Disney Company.
Gold, with his wife, Ilene, has two children, Jennifer and Charles (a USC master’s of business administration graduate). The Golds reside in Beverly Hills.
Fundraising veteran Wallace “Bud” Levin has been installed as national major gifts chairman for Jewish National Fund.
“While I knew that over the past 100 years, JNF has helped to reclaim, restore and nurture the Jewish homeland,” Levin said. “When I was in Israel this summer, I really saw how vital their immediate work is — both responsively and proactively.”
Levin began his career as a lay leader 40 years ago in St. Louis with the St. Louis Federation, United Hebrew Congregation Capital Campaign, and National United Jewish Appeal.
How the West Was Won
Last Aug. 26, on a soundstage off Sunset Boulevard, Chabad of the West Coast’s 21st annual telethon was about to begin.
The stage lights dimmed to blue, Camera One wheeled in, and a spotlight trained on a young boy wearing payes (sidecurls) and knickers — Anatevka, circa 1905. The boy raised a fiddle to his chin and began a klezmer tune. A second young man, also in stylized Chasidic garb, emerged from the wings and began a slow-motion dance. The music got louder, the pace quickened, the dancer’s pirouettes followed closer upon each other and then the stage exploded in a shower of lights and electric guitars as a dozen Lubavitch yeshiva students leapt forward, twisting, turning, doing handstands and cartwheels in a frenzied circle. Cymbals clashed and a booming voice rang out: "To Life! L’Chaim!"
The seven-hour, celebrity-studded, annual extravaganza is West Coast Chabad’s largest fundraiser of the year. In 2001, the telethon netted $5 million for Chabad’s National Drug Rehabilitation Center and other social service operations; this year, they’re hoping for more. It is a truly bizarre cultural phenomenon — a televised fundraiser for a Chasidic organization whose adherents don’t watch television. A charity event that draws Hollywood celebrities from Jon Voight to Anthony Hopkins to Whoopi Goldberg, Jews and non-Jews, all of whom take the stage to extol the virtues of "doing mitzvahs" and "helping to bring Moshiach," raising money for a Jewish group whose religious lifestyle has little in common with their own. It’s weird. But it brings in the dough.
At the center of the show, dancing the hora with wild abandon every time the big board flashes a new fundraising total, is 62-year-old Rabbi Boruch Shlomo Cunin, the charismatic and controversial director of Chabad of the West Coast. In 1965, Cunin was sent by the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, from New York to California with instructions, as Cunin tells it, to "take the West Coast." Los Angeles’ big, largely unaffiliated, wealthy Jewish community was laid out before the young rabbi like a glittering jewel, if he had the moxie to grab hold of it.
And he did. Today, Cunin is one of Chabad’s most successful fundraisers in the world — in 2001 he raised his own $10 million operating budget plus another $5 million for capital expenses — and he oversees more than 100 Chabad outreach centers and 28 other schools and institutions throughout California and Nevada.
In Chabad circles, they call it "Cunin’s Empire" — and they don’t always mean it kindly. Cunin’s six sons and three eldest daughters are all shlichim (Chabad emissaries), all of whom are working in California. When Cunin sent his eldest daughter, Channa, and her new husband to Brentwood in 1985 to establish Chabad operations there, some Chabadniks muttered about nepotism. They complained to the Rebbe, who — according to the story — reminded them that he, too, went to work for his father-in-law, the previous Rebbe. Today, all of Cunin’s children have linked their work to their father’s. They treat him with a kind of awe, almost a formal deference mixed with unabashed adoration, as if, although they’ve known him all their lives, they still can’t quite believe he exists.
Cunin is a huge whirlwind of a man; a brash, blustery guy who hugs men he’s just met, laughs loudly, speaks in a raspy half-shout and isn’t ashamed of tears. He loves to bring up his boyhood in the Bronx, where, he says, he learned to defend his Jewish identity with his fists. "I’m an American boy, and I can hit a baseball," he boasts. Son and grandson of Lubavitchers, he is proud of his street smarts. Like other Chabadniks, he hasn’t been to college — the Rebbe discouraged it — but unlike some, Cunin relishes his lack of formal education. "What’s a Ph.D. mean?" he asks rhetorically. "Papa Has Dough."
When it comes to soliciting potential donors, or confronting politicians, Cunin is fearless. He marches into their offices, states his needs and waits out the opposition. He’s weathered lawsuits, badgered recalcitrant city councils, and has been rumored to tear up checks in a donor’s face if he thinks the amount is too small. He expands Chabad’s West Coast operations at a startling rate. In June 2001, Cunin announced he was opening seven new Chabad centers in one week. Five had no office space. Two had no personnel. But that didn’t faze him.
"He’s unstoppable," remarks Los Angeles County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, who has known Cunin since the late ’60s. "If you’re in a war, you want him in your bunker."
You can love him, or you can not love him, but you can’t dismiss him.
"He’s had an enormous effect on Jewish life [in this city]," says Gerald Bubis, founding director of the School of Jewish Communal Services at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, where he now serves as professor emeritus. "He’s one of the greatest fundraisers in the country."
Bubis first met Cunin in 1965 or 1966, when Bubis was serving as director of the JCC in Long Beach. Cunin walked into his office one day and asked whether he thought Long Beach could support a day school. "After I’d pontificated for about three minutes, I paused and said, ‘You’re not asking me. You’ve come to announce that you’re doing it, aren’t you?’"
Cunin said yes.
"I told him, if you do, and it’s successful, I’ ll eat my hat," Bubis says.
Cunin opened the day school, which flourished, and every time since then when the two men meet, the rabbi asks Bubis how his hat tastes.
"I have great admiration for what he’s accomplished, along with great concern as to whether there’s proper accountability and oversight," Bubis says. "There’s no board of directors. I’m very ambivalent."
>From the beginning, Cunin has had a checkered relationship with Los Angeles’ Jewish establishment. Soon after he arrived, he tried to organize Jewish classes for "religious release hour," a program that took children out of the public schools for one hour a week for religious instruction. Los Angeles’ municipal religious liaison committee told him he needed approval from The Jewish Federation, but when Cunin went to meet with the local machers, they shot down the idea. No mixing of religion and public school education, they told him.
Cunin, barely 25 at the time, stared them down. "I told them, ‘Let’s get the record straight. You may be big guys here, but on me, you got nothing. My boss is God. Moses, who tells me what to do, is the Rebbe. I’m a train coming down the track, and you can either get on board, step out of the way or be run over.’"
Over the years, Cunin has clashed repeatedly with Jewish and other organizations in his way. He has fought rabbis, federations and the American Civil Liberties Union over public menorah lightings throughout California. In virtually every case, he won. In 1989, he became embroiled in a messy lawsuit over ownership of The Bayit, a Jewish student cooperative at UCLA he was using for Chabad activities. A settlement was reached in 1995 and The Bayit returned to student hands, but rancor remained.
"I can’t go into the terms of the agreement, but Chabad came out nicely," says columnist Avi Davis, president of The Bayit’s board of directors.
Cunin’s latest battle erupted this January, when he fired Rabbi Shmulik Naperstak as director of Chabad of the Marina. Naperstak refuses to vacate the synagogue building for which he claims to have raised most of the funding; Cunin claims that the building belongs to Chabad of the West Coast, Naperstak’s titular employer. In the fluid, semicorporate world of Lubavitch, where straying followers are urged back into the fold rather than kicked out, and where an individual Chabad emissary who raises his own funding can take headquarters’ directives with a grain of salt, Cunin — like other emissaries — is usually left alone to run his own affairs.
This time, Naperstak’s donors raised a stink, Lubavitch headquarters in Brooklyn stepped in and both parties agreed to go to the central Lubavitch rabbinical court for adjudication. The case is still pending.
Cunin’s boundless energy and his refusal to take "no" for an answer are fueled by his overwhelming dedication to the late Lubavitcher Rebbe. Cunin repeats endlessly that he is a soldier in his Rebbe’s army, spurred on even today by Schneerson’s spirit and holiness. His love for Schneerson is palpable — when he talks about the Rebbe, his face shines and tears come to his eyes.
That love has motivated the many "firsts" Cunin has chalked up over the years: the first Chabad House (UCLA, in 1969); the first mitzvah tank (a refurbished mobile home he used to house an after-school Jewish children’s program); the first sukkah-mobile.
Now that’s a story, he says: "I saw a trailer going by on Fairfax Boulevard … advertising something, and I said, what a great idea! So I followed the trailer to a parking lot where I see a half-dozen of these dilapidated vehicles. I go inside and there’s a little yiddel [Jewish man] behind the counter. I say, ‘Are these trailers for rent?’ He said, ‘For a price, anything’s for rent.’ But he wouldn’t pay for the liability insurance, so I said, ‘OK, sell me the trailer.’ He said, ‘It’s not for sale.’ I said, ‘That’s good, because I have no money, so give it to me.’ And he gave me the trailer."
Cunin used the trailer that year as the first sukkah-on-wheels. After the holiday, he hooked it up to the back of his Chevy Nova, set up two large bullhorns in front, and drove the contraption to Federation headquarters where he drove around the parking lot, shouting, "Give your child a free Jewish education! Call Chabad!" through the bullhorns. "It was beautiful," he recalls.
Today Cunin controls more than $35 million in assets and broke ground in June on a $10 million girls’ school on Pico Boulevard. His latest project, Chabad Garden Preschool, a collaboration with Childrens Hospital Los Angeles, will service the education, emotional and health needs of low-income families and their children, and is presented as a model of integrated academic and medical programs.
But by the mid-1980s, his "act first and finance later" style of conducting business had landed him $18 million in debt and on the verge of collapse. At the 11th hour, he was saved by a fortuitous $21 million estate left to him by Hermine Weinberg, an elderly woman whom Cunin had listened to when no one else would. (Her family took Chabad to court to contest the will, and Cunin ended up with $21 million. It wasn’t her entire estate.)
Since that windfall, combined with two other $10 million donations, Cunin has never come close to collapse again. But on the inside of a door in his office are tacked up dozens of yellowing index cards, each one documenting what he owed to a particular bank, organization or individual in the 1980s. Whenever he’s feeling cocky, he takes a look at the cards.
Over the years, Cunin has also amassed quite a collection of Hollywood supporters. One of the biggest is film producer and philanthropist Jerry Weintraub, whose producing credits include "Ocean’s 11," "Diner" and the "Karate Kid" series. Weintraub first met Cunin 20 years ago, when he arrived at his office one morning to see a black-hatted rabbi sitting in his waiting room. Weintraub walked past Cunin into his inner office, buzzed his secretary, told her to hand the rabbi a check for $10,000 and get rid of him.
"That’s the sum I usually give," Weintraub says. "I’m involved with a lot of philanthropy, and rabbis are always coming to me for money." This rabbi was different. He refused the check and demanded to see Weintraub in person. Stunned by the audacity, Weintraub agreed; "A rabbi who turns down $10,000, I had to let him in."
Weintraub became a major feather in Cunin’s cap, helping him restructure his crippling debt and eventually becoming co-chair for the telethon. A fellow Bronx native, Weinberg says he likes Cunin’s style.
"Most of the Jews out here, the Beverly Hills crowd, they don’t like Chasidic Jews. They’re afraid of them, or embarrassed by them. I think they’re great."
It’s 8 a.m., the morning after last year’s telethon, and Cunin is already in his office. He should be exhausted, after dancing past midnight the previous evening, but he’s ready to rock ‘n’ roll. He has a lot of follow-up calls to make, to remind donors to send in their pledges. "This is our major presence for the year," he notes. "All our major gifts tie back to the telethon. You know that $21 million gift? She was a telethon watcher."
The phone rings. It’s a woman whose actor son has a drug problem. They were at the telethon last night and are now staying in a nearby hotel while she tries to convince her son to enter Chabad’s rehab center. "We need to get him into treatment as soon as possible," Cunin tells her. "I hate to be so frank, but we have to take a tough stance." Cunin says he’ll send over "a couple guys" to help move the mother into an apartment.
"Don’t worry, we’ll take care of the rent until you’re on your feet," he tells her. "Put the boy on the phone." Cunin listens to the young man for a while, then begins rolling his eyes and humming "Home on the Range."
"Listen, my friend, I wrote all the songs in the book," he says sternly. "You’re a successful actor, but if you’re not willing to make an appointment at the center and get off the range, I can’t do more for you. Here, talk to Meir." Cunin hands the phone to Meir Cohen, a gray-bearded Israeli rabbi who flies in once a month to do counseling at the rehab center. Cohen listens to the young man for a minute, then puts his hand over the receiver and whispers to Cunin, "He says he doesn’t want to go in. He sees his psychiatrist every day, and he says that’s enough."
"Bubbe meises [old wives’ tales], the psychiatrist," Cunin grumbles. "His mother says he won’t eat. Get him into the program or he’ll be deader than a doornail."
Hanging up, Cunin sighs and looks at the picture of Schneerson hanging on the wall behind his desk. "When the Rebbe left us, he gave us a phenomenal yearning that doesn’t let us stop for a second," he says. "Another building, another human being, another good deed. The Rebbe said, ‘Do what you can to bring Moshiach,’ so you do more and more. A girls’ school in the morning. A drug facility. Poor people. Do what you can to bring Moshiach. Not think what you can. Not verbiage of what you can. Do what you can."
Cunin then picks up the phone, and dials another number noting, "It’s just a question of jumping over the obstacles. Of seizing the moment."
Sue Fishkoff is a freelance writer living in Pacific Grove and the author of "The Rebbe’s Army: Inside the World of Chabad-Lubavitch," scheduled for publication by Schocken Books in March 2003.
Backstage with Jon Voight at Chabad Telethon ’99
Backstage at Chabad Telethon ’99, Jon Voight was like the Beatles song — “Here, There and Everywhere.” One moment, the erstwhile “Midnight Cowboy” was huddling in a corner with a telethon point person, putting last-minute touches on a speech. Moments later, he was hovering around the extensive buffet, somewhere between the chili con carne and the roast brisket. Then the Academy Award winner was catching up with friends and obliging fans with autographs and photo opportunities.
“Here, There and Everywhere.” One might say the same about Chabad itself, which has outreach chapters popping up all over the map, and the Telethon ’99 advertising campaign blanketing the city with everything from billboards and lamppost banners, to truck-side displays riding up and down Pacific Coast Highway Sunday.
A regular Chabad fixture, Voight was one of many celebrities who spent the evening singing the praises on camera of Chabad’s work. Anthony Hopkins, emcee Fyvush Finkel, Edward James Olmos, Sean Young, Shelley Winters, Dick Van Patten and Len Lesser (“Seinfeld’s” Uncle Leo) all turned out to help make Chabad’s 19th televised fund-raiser a success. The final tally: a whopping $4,701,412 in pledges.
Broadcast locally on KCOP, the telethon has become a familiar, annual parade of taped testimonials and live talent. Eclectic entertainment took place before the camera and backstage, from the comedy of Sid Caesar to bagpipe sensation “Wicked Tinkers” — each segment culminating with the obligatory tote board updates and circles of dancing Chassidim.
Overheard behind the scenes was a parent’s firsthand endorsement of Chabad’s programs. Recounting the plight of her teen-age son, who was undergoing drug rehabilitation at the organization’s Olympic and Hauser facility, the mother said that she had tried a leading rehab center, and all they did for her son was charge him a bill running in the thousands of dollars. Things changed when she enrolled her son at the Chabad center.
“They didn’t care about the money,” the woman said. “They said, ‘Just bring in your kid.’ … Chabad is the only one that cares about the kids.”
Last month’s North Valley Jewish Community Center shooting echoed throughout the evening, as the messages of Chabad leader Rabbi Boruch Shlomo Cunin and his celebrity guests often alluded to the incident and the importance of combating hate and prejudice in the world.
Commenting on the Aug. 10 tragedy, Voight told The Journal: “I’ve traveled all over the world. People are coming together more and more. This was an isolated, insane act.”
Onstage, Voight reiterated his sentiment, also adding that the Jewish community will survive this latest tragedy because “the Jewish people are eternal. They will never be overtaken.”
Sunday Night Fever
You’re flipping the TV dial, and you come across something so incongruous that you’re riveted: Bob Dylan and Jon Voight enthusiastically dancing the dervish-like kazatzka with Chassidic Rabbi Boruch Shlomo Cunin.
It could only be the Chabad telethon, where religious fervor mingles with Hollywood marketing savvy; where stars don yarmulkes and dance the night away with kapote-clad Chassids. The latest celebrity-studded show takes place Sunday, Aug. 29, 5 p.m. to midnight on KCOP-TV Channel 13, when millions of viewers in some 20 markets will help raise more than last year’s tally of $4.3 million. Anthony Hopkins will show up, via a prerecorded segment, to support the Chabad Drug Rehabilitation Center, which, he says, is non-sectarian and boasts one of the highest success rates in the country. “You’ve seen me play [various roles] such as Hannibal Lecter,” he says, “but today I’m playing Anthony Hopkins and I’m here to ask you to help Chabad.”
rJon Voight and Other Jewish Mysteries
One of the enduring mysteries of Los Angeles Jewish life is Jon Voight. Each year, Jews turn on their televisions to see the Oscar-winning actor, who isn’t Jewish, dancing the hora with a Chassidic rabbi, appealing to viewers to give money to the rabbi’s cause, and generally looking like a yeshiva bocher on Simchat Torah. And each year, Jews turn to one another and ask: What’s that all about?
And it’s not just Voight. Whoopi Goldberg, Tony Danza, Edward James Olmos and Carroll O’Connor, among dozens of stars, all turn up at the studios of the annual Chabad Telethon to show West Coast Chabad founder and telethon creator Rabbi Boruch Shlomo Cunin their heartfelt support. This year, Vice President Al Gore will add his voice to the fund-raising appeal either in person or by satellite. And Bob Dylan may show up again. Bob Dylan.
For weeks before the telethon, Los Angeles is awash in giant billboards that feature a stylized image of the dancing rabbi. One year, he popped up on every Vons grocery bag. It’s a level of publicity beyond the dreams or abilities of most Jewish organizations in town. Come telethon time (this year, it’s on Sunday), the high profile pays off with big bucks. The telethon brings in about $4 million, according to Chabad Lubavitch.
But along with the high profile comes, of course, the carping. As much as people love to love Chabad, there are those who love to hate it. The whisper campaign of allegations can be deafening. It’s important to note that none of the worst charges that have arrived on our desk come with any hard evidence.
Rabbi Cunin has stepped on some local toes, most notably in his handling of the Westwood Bayit and the Beverly Hills menorah controversy. It is not being naive to take those actions at their face value, balance them against the positive side of the ledger, and draw your own conclusions.
Some cite these examples as reasons enough to despise Chabad. And, if you’re looking for reasons to disparage the entire bunch, surely among Chabad’s 150,000 active members worldwide and its 250,000 supporters and 3,000 emissaries you’ll find some. But each Chabad operates as a kind of franchise, sinking or swimming on its own. Locally, Chabad’s supporters point to its outreach efforts, its readiness to help Jews in need, its schools and drug treatment facilities (including an impressive new one opening in West Los Angeles), its annual Passover and High Holiday workshops for all local Jewish day schools, as reason enough to give a little or a lot. We know people whose lives have been saved or whose faith in Judaism restored by generous Chabad assistance.
Whatever your take on Chabad, anyone who watches TV on Sunday will have to admit: they have managed something close to a media miracle. If 20 years ago a devout, bearded rabbi had asked you whether a relatively small group of Jews in traditional black garb who adhere to an Orthodox, non-egalitarian interpretation of Jewish practice could raise millions of dollars on television and attract Hollywood and music industry stars, you would have said, Yeah, right, and how about an Amish game show while you’re at it. But Cunin pulled it off. And this is how: his organization knows how to convey its passion for Jewish life. As synagogues and Jewish institutions have long known, that is no easy task. Rabbi Cunin, his able family and fellow Chabadniks can make Jerry Lewis seem like a wallflower. To those Jews who find this embarrassing, we can only say, Don’t worry, Jon Voight knows we all don’t wear black and dance by a tote board.
But since the first mitzvah mobile rolled across the land in the late 1960s, Chabad has always been there for Jews who are searching for a way back into their faith. Our cover story documents how more and more Jewish rock stars and musicians belong in this category.
Hence Dylan’s surprise appearances at the telethon. Chabad keeps the admission to Jewish ritual and learning free and easy. Come when you can, leave when you want, pay if you wish. In the meantime, sing, dance, pray, nosh and — on Sabbath and Simchat Torah — have some schnapps. The geniuses trying to outsmart Jewish apathy and assimilation can do worse than look closely at Cunin’s Chabad. Maybe they can start by turning on the TV. — Rob Eshman, Managing Editor
Gene Lichtenstein will be back next week.
Chabad’s Prime-Time Bash
You never know who is going to show up at Chabad’s annual “L’Chaim — To Life” telethon, which this year is scheduled for Sunday, Aug. 29, from 5 p.m. to midnight, on KCOP Channel 13.
Bob Hope has paid his respects. Bob Dylan has appeared five times. And last year, the entire cast of “Friends,” one of NBC’s top-rated sitcoms, feted Chabad in a schmoozy segment recorded just for the telethon.
This year, the celebrities scheduled to appear include Sid Caesar, Steve Allen, Rich Little, James Caan, Bob Saget and, of course, Jon Voight. Fyvush Finkel, wearing his ubiquitous bow tie, will host, along with his son, the musician. Stars will don yarmulkes, offer Chabad testimonials and dance the dervish-like kazatzka with Rabbi Boruch Shlomo Cunin, Chabad West Coast director and telethon founder.
It’s a unique mixture of Hollywood marketing savvy and Chassidic religious fervor — one of the last live variety shows on TV, according to its promoters. The goal is to surpass last year’s telethon tote board total of $4,387,652.
The money will help support the 36 new Chabad houses opened locally during the last five years. It will also help fund the new campus of the Chabad Residential Treatment Center and the Chabad Sober Living Center, located at 5675 W. Olympic Blvd. in Los Angeles. The 28,000-square-foot facility opened in July.
For more information, call (310) 208-7511.
Chabad Telethon: Chai on Life
For many, the High Holidays have already been officially ushered in — not with the blowing of the Shofar, but with the sound of Rabbi Boruch Shlomo Cunin’s voice hosting the annual Chabad telethon.
This year’s broadcast was especially symbolic. After all, it was the 18th Chabad telethon — 18 being the numerical value of the letters in the word chai, which means life. In fact, the evening’s official motto was “L’Chaim To Life!”
Most are acquainted with Cunin — Chabad’s charismatic West Coast director — and his mission: to raise money for Chabad’s social and educational outreach programs. Sharing hosting duties with Cunin this year were actor Fyvush Finkel and movie producer Jerry Weintraub, the telethon’s longtime chairman.
The live UPN broadcast rewarded viewers and pledgers with a cavalcade of Jewish entertainers, including guitarist Yoffi Piamenta (dubbed “the Jewish Jimi Hendrix”), who closed out the program with a roof-raising rendition of “Mosiach.” Celebrities appearing in studio to sing Chabad’s praises included Sid Caesar, James Caan, Robert Guillaume, Elliott Gould and Bernie Kopell. Comedian Steve Allen played some piano, then worked the phones with his wife, actress Jayne Meadows.
Chabad returns to the air for an 18th year
The Chabad Telethon — that unique mix of caring, sharing and good production values — returns to the small screen this Sunday, Aug. 30, from 5 p.m. to midnight on UPN Channel 13.
This year’s telethon, the 18th in the organization’s 30-year history here, aims to equal or surpass last year’s effort, which raised close to $4 million. The money helps fund Chabad’s wide range of social-service and educational programs, including the Chabad drug-rehabilitation center, project PRIDE drug-prevention centers, a homeless program, educational outreach programs on college campuses and in local communities, hospital chaplaincy, new-immigrant programs and crisis counseling. Much of the money is raised locally and spent locally, say Chabad officials, although the telethon is also broadcast in San Francisco, Las Vegas, New York, Miami and the U.S. Virgin Islands.
Longtime host Jan Murray, above, is scheduled for an appearance, but Fyvush Finkel will emcee this year.
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.
Eighteen years and millions of dollars later, the telethon has become a kind of Los Angeles institution, for Jews and non-Jews.
Rabbi Boruch Shlomo Cunin, West Coast director of Chabad, is the man most responsible for infusing the telethon with its trademark spirit. The dancing rabbis, the black frock coats, schmaltzy jokes and ample Yiddishisms provide what for many people is their strongest annual dose of Jewishness.
Jews who would never go to synagogue, much less to one of Chabad’s 60 centers or 48 schools and social-service facilities statewide, find themselves drawn to the telethon. The mix of Hollywood glitz and Hassidic fervor, odd as it may seem, is strangely entertaining. And moving. The program, which takes some four months to produce, presents the stories of people helped by Chabad — homeless single mothers sheltered, infants with crippling diseases supported, drug addicts rehabilitated.
Since the mid-1970s, according to Chabad literature, more than 500 men have been treated at the Chabad National Residential Drug Rehabilitation Center in Los Angeles. The organization’s 23 community-based drug-prevention information centers in the United States and Canada have dispensed information and materials to more than 40,000 schoolchildren annually, and more than 2,800 students have enrolled in Chabad’s West Coast schools, which include 26 day and Hebrew schools, ranging from preschool to college.
The money does not go to support Chabad Lubavitch activities in Israel, according to a Chabad spokesman.
Among those scheduled to appear on this year’s telethon, hosted by Fyvush Finkel, are: Steve Allen, Oscar de la Hoya, Tony Danza, Regis Philbin, Estelle Getty, Itzhak Perlman, James Coburn, Tommy Lasorda, Sid Caesar, Gene Wilder, Edward James Olmos and Jon Voight. Warner Bros. producer Jerry Weintraub is the longtime telethon chairman. — Staff Report
Brushing Up On Your Yiddish
Three years ago, Mel Rogow didn’t speak a word of Yiddish. He was an attorney who had learned Korean to communicate with his clients.
Then the memories of World War II began to catch up with him. In 1942, Rogow jumped overboard as his ship was torpedoed by German subs; after the war, he was so shaken by news of the Holocaust that he was never able to read books or watch films about the Shoah.
Then, in 1995, he decided to do something in memory of the victims, something to ensure Jewish continuity. He began studying Yiddish and the works of great Yiddish authors such as Y.L. Peretz.
This weekend, Rogow is coordinator of a bilingual conference of the International Association of Yiddish Clubs, which for the first time is meeting in Los Angeles. “Yiddish Goes West,” Aug. 27-30 at UCLA, will draw some 250 participants and 30 world-class lecturers on topics from Yiddish theater to Yiddish vocabulary on love and sex. You can catch the Second Avenue Klezmer Ensemble, learn about the history of the Bund or Yiddish on the web. The keynote speaker is Professor Eugene Orenstein of McGill University. The Westside Jewish Community Center is co-sponsoring the conference.
For information, call Mel Rogow at (213) 939-2193. — Naomi Pfefferman , Entertainment Editor
Holocaust Filmmakers Sought
“Unzere Kinder (Our Children),” the last Yiddish film made in Poland, will be featured at the upcoming Yiddishkayt Los Angeles festival, and its organizers are searching the world for anyone who had a part in making the 1946 film.
“Unzere Kinder” was one of the first films to deal fully with the Holocaust, and its “actors” were actual survivors, primarily orphaned children of the Helenovek Children’s Home near Lodz.
For the Yiddishkayt festival from Oct. 17-25, attorney Barry Fisher, working with the Polish government, hopes to bring the film’s surviving creators and cast members to Los Angeles, particularly those now living in the United States.
The recently restored film is described as a psychodrama, with touches of black humor. Anyone who was connected with it is requested to contact Barry A. Fisher, 1888 Century Park East, Suite 1750, Los Angeles, CA 90067. Phone number is (310) 557-1077, or fax (310) 557-0770. — Tom Tugend, Contributing Editor
European Insurance Companies Move Toward Reparation
Five major European insurance companies have committed themselves to work with American state officials, Jewish organizations and Israel to provide quick and fair payment of Holocaust-era life and property insurance claims.
Allianz AG of Germany, AXA/Equitable of France and three Swiss companies — Zurich Group, Basler Leben and Winterthur — signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) on Monday, announced California Insurance Commissioner Chuck Quackenbush.
The MOU provides for creation of an independent international commission to adjudicate claims by Holocaust survivors and heirs of victims.
Quackenbush said that he expects the commission to be named and to start its work in two months, with the goal of resolving all claims within two years.
Assicurazioni Generali of Italy, which recently settled a class-action suit for $100 million, has signaled its intent to sign the MOU. Quackenbush said that he expects nine other insurance companies, named in various litigations, to fall in line shortly.
The commission will deal only with individual claims, not class-action suits, and will award actual damages but not punitive damages.
In cases in which no heirs can be found, the money will go to Holocaust-related and humanitarian organizations or institutions.
The commission is to be made up of 12 members and a chairperson, including three American insurance commissioners and representatives of European insurance companies, the World Jewish Congress, World Jewish Restitution Organization and Israel.
The California official said that he expects the three slots assigned to state insurance commissioners to be filled by himself, Neil Levin of New York, and Bill Nelson of Florida, whose states have the largest concentrations of Jewish residents and Holocaust survivors.
“There is no body of international law pertaining to individual insurance claims, so the voluntary adherence of the European insurance companies to the new commission is an important step,” said Quackenbush.– Tom Tugend, Contributing Editor
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.
Chabad’s Big Bash
Chabad’s Big Bash
The annual telethon offers a mix of celebrities,entertainment and appeals for necessary funds
By Rob Eshman, Associate Editor
Rabbi Boruch Shlomo Cunin will once again be joined by JonVoight (left) and Jan Murray (right), at Chabad’s annualtelethon.As sure as the swallows returning to San Juan Capistrano, thedancing rabbis are returning to TV stations nationwide for the annualChabad telethon. Nothing in modern culture quite compares, or quiteillustrates just how topsy-turvy modern culture can be: Here areOrthodox rabbis in traditional 17th-century Polish noble garb dancingwith Hollywood stars in Armani suits, espousing lines of ancientTorah via the most advanced satellite technology, giving acenturies-old pitch for charity, and taking payment via credit card.What a wonderful world….
This year’s telethon will take place on Sunday, Sept. 7, from 5p.m. to midnight, on UPN Channel 13. Rabbi Boruch Shlomo Cunin, theWest Coast director of Chabad and founder of the telethon 17 yearsago, will lead the marathon endeavor, and comedian Freddie Roman willhost. Among the stars slated to show up — and eventually dance withthe rabbis — are James Caan, Mayim Bialik, Tony Curtis, Sid Caesar,Fyvush Finkel, Estelle Getty, Jan Murray, Tony Danza, Judd Nelson,Jon Voight, Regis Philbin, Edward James Olmos, Shelley Winters, theLimelighters, the Tokens and Ed Ames. Producer Jerry Weintraub ischairman of the event.
Last year, Chabad raised $4 million, which it says goes to supportits community-outreach and drug-rehabilitation programs and youth andsummer camps. This year, according to Chabad representative (and oneof Rabbi Cunin’s 13 children) Chaim Cunin, they hope to raise “abillion.” He’s only half-kidding, of course.