"I felt so proud," says his son, seated at the marble table of Chabad Lubavitch's fifth-floor conference room in Westwood.
If the idea of an arm-wrestling rabbi sounds a bit unorthodox, the Southland has grown accustomed to the notion of a dancing rabbi, the signature image of Chabad's "To Life" Telethon, which will be celebrating its 27th year on Sunday, Sept. 9, airing live on KCAL, Channel 9.
Cunin, 33, executive producer of the telethon and CEO of Chabad of California, may represent a movement that dates back to the 1700s, but on a recent August day he wasn't wearing a dark frock coat. Instead, he sported casual attire: a blue button-down shirt, a brown tie and a yarmulke, that, when flipped around, bore the trademark dancing rabbi logo.
It was a nod to the good-natured whimsy of the telethon, whose theme this year is "People Helping People." Chabad has always helped people of all faiths. In turn, not surprisingly, Hollywood glitterati of all religions and races, including Jon Voight, James Caan, Edward James Olmos and Magic Johnson, have made appearances on the telethon over the years. They have helped raise money for Chabad, which runs such nonsectarian programs as drug rehabilitation centers, old age homes and the friendship circle. And while Chabad charges fees for these programs, "no one is turned away for lack of funds," Cunin said. The one requirement of those seeking treatment is that they are "truly committed to turning their lives around," he added.
Chabad, to be sure, straddles the traditional and the new. To carry out Chabad's mission of performing mitzvot, Cunin has become an "Apple enthusiast," navigating the Internet with ease on his iBook. Cunin also keeps handy an iPhone, which he calls an "OiPhone," because every time his cell phone rings he knows it is one more responsibility he must undertake in preparation for the telethon.
Questioned about the seeming paradox of a Chasidic rabbi using newfangled products, Cunin said: "The values of Judaism, the principles of Judaism, the Torah, are relevant in every generation and every day. Whether it's the Apple computer today or the telephone when that was invented.... In Judaism these are tools ... which help us bring godliness, holiness, the light everywhere."
As calm as Cunin might have appeared as he leaned back in his swivel chair, there was no denying the anxiety of supervising a major production like the Chabad Telethon.
Next to his Macintosh computer was a box of Commit, over-the-counter nicotine lozenges. As he sucked on one of the cherry lozenges, Cunin explained that he'd quit smoking nine weeks before.
A few books in Hebrew were spread out on the conference table. When asked what the day's Torah portion was, however, he drew a blank, then said, "I'm losing it." He looked it up at Chabad.org. It was a portion from Deuteronomy.
If Cunin was stressed this day, that was nothing new. In 1980, when he was six, his family received a phone call at two or three in the morning. He awakened his father, who was informed that the Chabad House was on fire. Three young men died in the blaze, and three torahs were severely damaged and had to be buried. Shortly thereafter, Cunin's father began the telethon.
As a boy, Cunin stuffed envelopes and distributed fliers for the telethon in stores; he now works nonstop for days, doing everything from helping to pick "stories [that] might be of interest, booking the talent, overseeing the publicity," he said.
Getting up from his chair, he moved briskly past a warren of cubbyholes to the elevator. A few flights down, he entered the offices of film editor Carter Reedy, who was cutting testimonials with producer Mike Levin. There was very little equipment in the room where they worked, just a TV screen and two computer monitors next to each other, one showing a full-sized image, the other a miniature version alongside computer text.
Levin and Reedy ran three segments, one on a Latino man, who says he "actually didn't even know what a rabbi was" until Chabad helped him overcome his drug problems; another of a Holocaust survivor who did not have enough money to pay for the funeral of her husband until Chabad came to her aid; and a fun spot at Dodger Stadium featuring former Dodger Shawn Green, comedian Richard Lewis, Fox Sports Radio personality Vic "the Brick" Jacobs and Cunin and his brother, Levi, all kidding one another, singing Ya'aseh Shalom, and running about in antic fashion during batting practice.
"Shawn Green, feeling you," said Vic the Brick. "No, I'm feeling you," Green said.
These will air during the telethon, along with a live show, including performances by entertainers and encouragements to donate. The telethon has always had a mix of poignancy and showmanship. Messages are layered throughout, but guilt is not one of them. Cunin called the telethon, which will be hosted this year by last year's co-host Elon Gold, a "legacy of goodness and kindness ... with a smile."
As this interview ended, Cunin's face was flushed, even though the air conditioning was on in the room. The last two weeks before the telethon, which he hopes will generate a record $7 million, will be intense, but he can handle it. As producer Levin said of the extra four hours of material he must prune, "These are good problems."
The Chabad "To Life" Telethon will air on KCAL, Channel 9, from 4 to 10 p.m. on Sunday, Sept. 9 and Web cast at www.tolife.com