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The Lady Behind the Dancing Man

by Wendy J. Madnick

August 24, 2000 | 8:00 pm

ActorJon Voight, left, Jeff Cutler and Rabbi Jerry Cutler

ActorJon Voight, left, Jeff Cutler and Rabbi Jerry Cutler

Around the end of August, every year for the past 20 years, the Chabad Telethon comes around. It gets so you can't drive anywhere without seeing the purple banners featuring the silhouette of a man wearing tzitzit and dancing joyously to some unheard song.

What many people do not know is that the producer behind this show where men dance with men and a female voice is never heard singing is... a woman.

Jeff Cutler - her first name is short for Jefferson, a family tradition - is a former actress and television producer on shows including "Candid Camera" and "The Suzanne Somers Show." She was first approached by Rabbi Shlomo Cunin of Chabad to produce the organization's initial telethon in 1980, after she and her husband, Rabbi Jerry Cutler, helped Cunin with a fundraiser. Cutler, who is of Scottish heritage, said she was very impressed with Cunin and his community.

"The Scots are a wild people. They have that verve for life, and that's what I found among the people of Chabad," Cutler said.

She recalls the celebration following the very first telethon, when the show broke the $1 million mark. "We broke out the champagne - kosher, of course - and then the rabbis and all the other men in their black hats and coats encircled me and sang "Loch Lomond" (a traditional Scottish song) in Yiddish," she said. "It was the most amazing thing that had ever happened to me."

Since that time, Cutler has been the producer of every Chabad telethon. She begins her preparation for each year's show in June and for the next three months eats, sleeps and breathes telethon business. Her family is also in on the act, with her husband writing the show (between duties as spiritual leader of the Creative Arts Temple in Los Angeles) and daughters Chelsea, 15, and Tess, 11, doing mailings and helping transcribe the show's script.

There is also Cutler's extended family, her crew, including associate producer Andrew Martin, film editor David Mower and project coordinators Ruchi Stillman and her daughter Shaina, plus an assortment of production assistants. Everyone pitches in, Cutler said, adding that one never knows what might be required.

"There are no job descriptions here. You can go from phoning a celebrity to holding a boom mike to emptying the trash - we do everything."

Over the course of a summer, Cutler pulls together all the elements for the partly live, partly taped show. The crew meets in June to figure out the theme for this year's event, then the research begins to find subjects to interview from the current clients of Chabad's Los Angeles residential drug-treatment center. The interviews will be interspersed throughout the seven-hour show, along with celebrity greetings featuring the likes of Martin Sheen, Sir Anthony Hopkins and this year the "Millionaire" man himself, Regis Philbin.

The final, hectic weeks are spent editing the videotaped segments and pulling together last-minute acts to fill the on-air time. The Sunday before the show is to air, Cutler is in her office viewing a video someone has sent her of a group of men dancing the kazatzki. Shaina thinks they would make a good act for the show and Cutler agrees; the act looks like something out of "Fiddler on the Roof" and will resonate well with her core audience. The acts for the show are restricted by the code of Jewish tradition, wherein men are forbidden to listen to a woman sing and men and women may not touch. She herself is not as observant as Chabad dictates and notes that her lifestyle occasionally leads to conflict with her clients.

"I consider myself a modern female. I've always had a career, and I am very independent in my thinking," she said. "I try to dress conservatively when I'm here, and I find that, although I do have my differences with Rabbi Cunin, we respect each other."

Cutler said she loves her job, especially the opportunity to do live television."I like to live on the edge," she said. "I should have been here [in Los Angeles] in the 1950's when all shows were live."

"Everything you could ever imagine happening on a live program has happened here, but it always works out," chimed in associate producer Andrew Martin, the self-described "class clown" of the group. Martin signed onto the show 12 years ago and said no one could have been more surprised than he was to get involved with Chabad.

"I was raised a Reform Jew in the Valley. My family belonged to Temple Solael, and I attended Jewish camp, but that was about it," Martin recalled. "Chabad was very intimidating to me. [But] after being here a few hours, I just fell in love with the whole project."

The show's producers are hoping to exceed last year's fundraising figure of $4.5 million. According to Rabbi Cunin, the money will all be spent in California, mostly in Southern California and primarily on the drug rehabilitation program, efforts to help the homeless and what the rabbi calls the Chesed (Kindness) Project, helping individuals in need. Some funds will also go toward a center for latchkey children on Robertson Boulevard that Cunin hopes to open this fall.

In addition to the national broadcast, the telethon will also be carried live on the Internet. Donations come from as far away as Great Britain and Israel.

"The telethon has a life beyond raising money. It is the biggest demonstration of Yiddishkayt, of Jewish pride and Jewish joy," Cunin said.

Cutler said it is Cunin's dedication to the show, as well as that of her crew, that keeps her coming back year after year.

"I love having people around me all working for the same cause," she said. "We truly are a family." The Chabad Telethon will air on UPN Channel 13 on Sunday, Aug. 27, from 5 p.m. to midnight.

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