August 26, 1999
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.