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.