As he danced with a group of Chabadniks, U.S. Rep. Brad Sherman (D-Sherman Oaks) swung his body around in circles so jubilantly that his kippah fell off. When one of the others placed it back on Sherman’s head, the congressman grinned.
“Now I know why you wear hats,” he said, still moving to the music. “They fit better.”
The exchange took place on Aug. 25 during Chabad of California’s 33rd annual telethon, which raises funds to benefit the Chasidic movement’s programming. In all, this year’s event brought in about $3 million, including pledges, according to organizers. (Last year’s telethon raised approximately $4 million.)
Rabbi Shalom Cunin, nephew of Rabbi Boruch Shlomo Cunin, director of Chabad’s West Coast operations, said the difficult economic times are partially to blame for Chabad’s raising fewer funds this year.
“People are spending less, being more cautious with their dollars, worried that they are going to have less,” Cunin told the Journal. “A lot of people who gave us donations in the past are coming to us for help.”
It did help, however, that Chabad was able to keep telethon production costs low in a number of ways — including using donated studio space at LA 18 KCSI-TV in West Los Angeles, he said.
Co-hosted by talk-show icon Larry King and radio personality and Jewish Journal columnist Dennis Prager, the event was broadcast live on KCSI-TV, JLTV and various cable carriers. It also streamed live at tolife.com.
On air and off, King, who hosted last year’s telethon, only had kind words to say about the organization.
“They help so many people, [and] they don’t ask what faith you are,” King told the Journal.
Noting the commotion of the evening, King compared the scene of a Chabad telethon to the set of a movie production. The former, he said, can be even more hectic than the latter.
“This is beyond Hollywood. It’s an unusual [situation], and it’s a lot of fun,” he said.
King, 79, however, departed early — at approximately 6:15 p.m. — because he was “feeling dizzy,” he told a reporter. The six-hour telethon began at 5 p.m.
Among the Chabad celebrity supporters also appearing on camera were Hollywood stars Elliott Gould and Jon Voight, television actress Leslie Grossman and elected officials Sherman, Los Angeles City Controller Ron Galperin, L.A. County Sheriff Lee Baca and City Councilman Paul Koretz.
Boruch Shlomo Cunin took part in nearly every live segment, animatedly chatting about Chabad’s legacy and the work that the Chasidic international movement does. He also bantered with the guests.
“I’ve known Paul for 150 years,” Cunin said excitedly, speaking into one of the two cameras pointing at his direction in the small studio space.
“Well, maybe a little less,” the councilman said on beat.
Nearly half of the broadcast featured prerecorded footage. This included the segments from Prager, musical performances and documentaries about various aspects of Chabad’s work domestically and internationally. The Friendship Circle, a Chabad-sponsored organization that serves children with special needs, and the Chabad Residential Treatment Center, an all-kosher, holiday-observant drug and alcohol recovery facility in Los Angeles, were among those initiatives that were highlighted.
During the broadcast, several men sat at small screens in a control room adjacent to the studio, with the show’s producer, Michael Levin, coming in and out throughout the night. Sometimes Levin’s role was commander; other times it was observer; and every now and again, it was diplomat.
Early on, Voight, an outspoken supporter of the Chabad movement and so much a regular at the annual telethon that he has become a de facto host in some respects, expressed his dissatisfaction with where cameramen were asking him to stand: in front of the six phone stations that had been placed on set. Rather, he wanted to stand by the large set piece that read “To Life” — a Chabad slogan — and the ever-changing counter marking the fundraising total.
“This isn’t the best shot,” the Oscar-winning actor told Cunin and the cameramen as Levin entered the studio.
The cameramen may not have known how to handle Voight, but Levin did: “Whatever works for you.”
There was no shortage of downtime during a broadcast that included nearly three hours of prerecorded segments. In the hallway outside the studio, standing underneath a dim “On the Air” sign, Gould, known for his roles in “M*A*S*H” and “Ocean’s Eleven,” could be seen chatting with Voight, as production crew, wearing Chabad garb and large headphones around their necks, hurried by to attend to various technical matters.
Nearby, the green room featured a table offering veggies, pizza and lasagna, and a stream of the telethon played live on a flat-screen television. There, attorney Marshall Grossman, co-chair of the event, sat with his daughter (and aforementioned actress), Leslie, and waited to be called back into the studio.
Leslie Grossman, 41, was one of the show’s younger presenters. She said she tweeted and Instagram’ed about the show to build up some awareness for it.
While she told the Journal her generation of Jewish friends might watch the program in an ironic way — or because it reminds them of bubbe or zayde — it could have a different purpose for non-Jews.
“If you’re not Jewish, your exposure to Chasidim is Chabad,” she said.
Her hope is that for non-Jews who tuned in, the bearded men in black hats and coats they see “shuffling down Fairfax” won’t seem so foreign after watching the telethon.
“I think it has a wide appeal,” she said.