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