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Jewish Journal

Chabad Telethon: 50 years of Chasidic movement on West Coast

by Ryan Torok

2 weeks ago

<em>Beverlywood Chabad Campus in Los Angeles. Image via Wikipedia</em>

Beverlywood Chabad Campus in Los Angeles. Image via Wikipedia

When Chabad holds its 34th annual “To Life” telethon on Sept. 7, it also will mark 50 years since the movement launched its operations on the West Coast.

Rabbi Boruch Shlomo Cunin, the prolific West Coast Chabad leader who turns 74 on Sept. 17, expressed enthusiasm about Chabad’s progress over the last half-century. In a recent phone interview with the Journal, he looked back on the years that have passed, waxing nostalgic about his experience driving cross-country at age 23 with his wife, the Rebbetzin Miriam Cunin, to bring the teachings of Chabad, which he did under the orders of the Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, to the West Coast.

“I was sent here 50 years ago to the West Coast. The Rebbe said to liberate, to bring unto the wings of HaShem, the entire West Coast,” Cunin said.

“Today, 220 branches [in California, Nevada and parts of Mexico] ... are run out of our headquarters” in Westwood, Cunin said. “I believe the Rebbe set us up as an independent operation of West Coast Chabad-Lubavitch to be the torchbearers, the frontrunners, of his work — such as, the first Chabad house in the world was here, the first Sukkah on Wheels was here, the first Jewish drug rehab center in the world [was here].”

Marking the anniversary, the telethon’s organizers have dug into the archives of the past 33 years of Chabad telethons. This year’s broadcast — airing at 5 p.m. on KSCI-TV JLTV and online at tolife.com — will feature key footage from those years.

“Mordechai Ben David from the earlier years, Neil Sedaka, Neil Diamond, Ed Ames … a lot of celebrity stuff that we’ve had,” said Michael Levin, the show’s lead producer. “There’s such wacky celebrity stuff. … When you have those live moments and people come out with the rabbis, people get wacky and let their hair down.”

A portion of the broadcast will be devoted to current events in Israel, including a recent segment that Cunin taped with KCBS.

Celebrities, elected officials and others will turn out to help Chabad make the evening one to remember. The hosts include actor Jon Voight; Jewish Journal columnist and conservative radio personality Dennis Prager; and attorney Marshall Grossman and his daughter, actress Leslie Grossman. The Office of Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti is an event partner, according to a July 9 post on the telethon’s Facebook page.

The Chabad event has come a long way since the first one took place in 1980, the year that a fire burned down its headquarters in Westwood. The Hollywood community — especially non-Jewish actor Carroll O’Connor, who was known for his role as Archie Bunker on television’s “All in the Family” — turned up in support. It was O’Connor who came up with the idea for Chabad to have a telethon so that its headquarters could be rebuilt. Guests during the inaugural broadcast included Ed Asner, Elliott Gould and Hal Linden.

While the show usually offers unscripted moments, some of the most moving are the pre-taped ones. Last week, Voight and the men who are living at the Chabad Residential Treatment Center in Los Angeles shot a segment that will air during the broadcast. Voight stuck around far longer than the shooting required so he could to speak with community members who are struggling with drug and alcohol addiction.

“He tells people, ‘I only have an hour.’ He was there for three hours. You can’t get him out,” said Levin, who has produced seven telethons.

Chabad Rabbi Shalom Cunin, who is Boruch Shlomo Cunin’s nephew and an organizer of the telethon, said the organization would at least like to match the fundraising of last year’s event, which brought in $3 million. But the event is also about promoting all the work that Chabad does for the community.

“I’ve asked my uncle this question many times. He says it’s not just about raising money for Chabad — which is important — it’s about raising awareness about Chabad and its programs, and, mainly, bringing out Jewish pride,” Shalom Cunin said. “You turn your TV on, you see dancing rabbis, you see Jewish pride — not just in a synagogue but in everyone’s living room.

“Many telethons have shut down, the Jerry Lewis [MDA Labor Day] telethon shut down. [My uncle] could have changed it to one hour, but he didn’t, because it’s not just about the money; it’s about the pride,” he said.

The event, which always takes place in advance of the High Holy Days, promotes and supports the organization’s diverse services, including the Chabad houses that host minyans, summer camps and more; the residential treatment facility; hospital and prison chaplaincy services, Hebrew schools and more.

Chabad has launched a sizable promotion campaign in advance of the event. “Banners are up and going up as we speak,” along with billboards and television promo spots, said Levin, whose co-producer on the telethon is David Erskine.

The telethon’s Facebook page also has played a prominent part in raising advance awareness, Levin said.

Filming for the event, which lasts until 11 p.m., will take place at KSCI studios, located on South Bundy Drive in West Los Angeles. 

Levin says the job is rewarding, even after all these years.

“You know the expression, ‘Man plans, God laughs.’ Same thing here: We plan, plan, plan to do the best job we can, and then you never know what happens live onstage, and that’s the exciting part. It’s exciting every single time, no matter how exhausted we are. Every time 5 o’clock rolls around and you go live, it’s like no other feeling,” Levin said. “It’s still quite the buzz for me.” 

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