Last Aug. 26, on a soundstage off Sunset Boulevard, Chabad of the West Coast's 21st annual telethon was about to begin.
The stage lights dimmed to blue, Camera One wheeled in, and a spotlight trained on a young boy wearing payes (sidecurls) and knickers -- Anatevka, circa 1905. The boy raised a fiddle to his chin and began a klezmer tune. A second young man, also in stylized Chasidic garb, emerged from the wings and began a slow-motion dance. The music got louder, the pace quickened, the dancer's pirouettes followed closer upon each other and then the stage exploded in a shower of lights and electric guitars as a dozen Lubavitch yeshiva students leapt forward, twisting, turning, doing handstands and cartwheels in a frenzied circle. Cymbals clashed and a booming voice rang out: "To Life! L'Chaim!"
The seven-hour, celebrity-studded, annual extravaganza is West Coast Chabad's largest fundraiser of the year. In 2001, the telethon netted $5 million for Chabad's National Drug Rehabilitation Center and other social service operations; this year, they're hoping for more. It is a truly bizarre cultural phenomenon -- a televised fundraiser for a Chasidic organization whose adherents don't watch television. A charity event that draws Hollywood celebrities from Jon Voight to Anthony Hopkins to Whoopi Goldberg, Jews and non-Jews, all of whom take the stage to extol the virtues of "doing mitzvahs" and "helping to bring Moshiach," raising money for a Jewish group whose religious lifestyle has little in common with their own. It's weird. But it brings in the dough.
At the center of the show, dancing the hora with wild abandon every time the big board flashes a new fundraising total, is 62-year-old Rabbi Boruch Shlomo Cunin, the charismatic and controversial director of Chabad of the West Coast. In 1965, Cunin was sent by the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, from New York to California with instructions, as Cunin tells it, to "take the West Coast." Los Angeles' big, largely unaffiliated, wealthy Jewish community was laid out before the young rabbi like a glittering jewel, if he had the moxie to grab hold of it.
And he did. Today, Cunin is one of Chabad's most successful fundraisers in the world -- in 2001 he raised his own $10 million operating budget plus another $5 million for capital expenses -- and he oversees more than 100 Chabad outreach centers and 28 other schools and institutions throughout California and Nevada.
In Chabad circles, they call it "Cunin's Empire" -- and they don't always mean it kindly. Cunin's six sons and three eldest daughters are all shlichim (Chabad emissaries), all of whom are working in California. When Cunin sent his eldest daughter, Channa, and her new husband to Brentwood in 1985 to establish Chabad operations there, some Chabadniks muttered about nepotism. They complained to the Rebbe, who -- according to the story -- reminded them that he, too, went to work for his father-in-law, the previous Rebbe. Today, all of Cunin's children have linked their work to their father's. They treat him with a kind of awe, almost a formal deference mixed with unabashed adoration, as if, although they've known him all their lives, they still can't quite believe he exists.
Cunin is a huge whirlwind of a man; a brash, blustery guy who hugs men he's just met, laughs loudly, speaks in a raspy half-shout and isn't ashamed of tears. He loves to bring up his boyhood in the Bronx, where, he says, he learned to defend his Jewish identity with his fists. "I'm an American boy, and I can hit a baseball," he boasts. Son and grandson of Lubavitchers, he is proud of his street smarts. Like other Chabadniks, he hasn't been to college -- the Rebbe discouraged it -- but unlike some, Cunin relishes his lack of formal education. "What's a Ph.D. mean?" he asks rhetorically. "Papa Has Dough."
When it comes to soliciting potential donors, or confronting politicians, Cunin is fearless. He marches into their offices, states his needs and waits out the opposition. He's weathered lawsuits, badgered recalcitrant city councils, and has been rumored to tear up checks in a donor's face if he thinks the amount is too small. He expands Chabad's West Coast operations at a startling rate. In June 2001, Cunin announced he was opening seven new Chabad centers in one week. Five had no office space. Two had no personnel. But that didn't faze him.
"He's unstoppable," remarks Los Angeles County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, who has known Cunin since the late '60s. "If you're in a war, you want him in your bunker."
You can love him, or you can not love him, but you can't dismiss him.
"He's had an enormous effect on Jewish life [in this city]," says Gerald Bubis, founding director of the School of Jewish Communal Services at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, where he now serves as professor emeritus. "He's one of the greatest fundraisers in the country."
Bubis first met Cunin in 1965 or 1966, when Bubis was serving as director of the JCC in Long Beach. Cunin walked into his office one day and asked whether he thought Long Beach could support a day school. "After I'd pontificated for about three minutes, I paused and said, 'You're not asking me. You've come to announce that you're doing it, aren't you?'"
Cunin said yes.
"I told him, if you do, and it's successful, I' ll eat my hat," Bubis says.
Cunin opened the day school, which flourished, and every time since then when the two men meet, the rabbi asks Bubis how his hat tastes.
"I have great admiration for what he's accomplished, along with great concern as to whether there's proper accountability and oversight," Bubis says. "There's no board of directors. I'm very ambivalent."
>From the beginning, Cunin has had a checkered relationship with Los Angeles' Jewish establishment. Soon after he arrived, he tried to organize Jewish classes for "religious release hour," a program that took children out of the public schools for one hour a week for religious instruction. Los Angeles' municipal religious liaison committee told him he needed approval from The Jewish Federation, but when Cunin went to meet with the local machers, they shot down the idea. No mixing of religion and public school education, they told him.
Cunin, barely 25 at the time, stared them down. "I told them, 'Let's get the record straight. You may be big guys here, but on me, you got nothing. My boss is God. Moses, who tells me what to do, is the Rebbe. I'm a train coming down the track, and you can either get on board, step out of the way or be run over.'"
Over the years, Cunin has clashed repeatedly with Jewish and other organizations in his way. He has fought rabbis, federations and the American Civil Liberties Union over public menorah lightings throughout California. In virtually every case, he won. In 1989, he became embroiled in a messy lawsuit over ownership of The Bayit, a Jewish student cooperative at UCLA he was using for Chabad activities. A settlement was reached in 1995 and The Bayit returned to student hands, but rancor remained.
"I can't go into the terms of the agreement, but Chabad came out nicely," says columnist Avi Davis, president of The Bayit's board of directors.
Cunin's latest battle erupted this January, when he fired Rabbi Shmulik Naperstak as director of Chabad of the Marina. Naperstak refuses to vacate the synagogue building for which he claims to have raised most of the funding; Cunin claims that the building belongs to Chabad of the West Coast, Naperstak's titular employer. In the fluid, semicorporate world of Lubavitch, where straying followers are urged back into the fold rather than kicked out, and where an individual Chabad emissary who raises his own funding can take headquarters' directives with a grain of salt, Cunin -- like other emissaries -- is usually left alone to run his own affairs.
This time, Naperstak's donors raised a stink, Lubavitch headquarters in Brooklyn stepped in and both parties agreed to go to the central Lubavitch rabbinical court for adjudication. The case is still pending.
Cunin's boundless energy and his refusal to take "no" for an answer are fueled by his overwhelming dedication to the late Lubavitcher Rebbe. Cunin repeats endlessly that he is a soldier in his Rebbe's army, spurred on even today by Schneerson's spirit and holiness. His love for Schneerson is palpable -- when he talks about the Rebbe, his face shines and tears come to his eyes.
That love has motivated the many "firsts" Cunin has chalked up over the years: the first Chabad House (UCLA, in 1969); the first mitzvah tank (a refurbished mobile home he used to house an after-school Jewish children's program); the first sukkah-mobile.
Now that's a story, he says: "I saw a trailer going by on Fairfax Boulevard ... advertising something, and I said, what a great idea! So I followed the trailer to a parking lot where I see a half-dozen of these dilapidated vehicles. I go inside and there's a little yiddel [Jewish man] behind the counter. I say, 'Are these trailers for rent?' He said, 'For a price, anything's for rent.' But he wouldn't pay for the liability insurance, so I said, 'OK, sell me the trailer.' He said, 'It's not for sale.' I said, 'That's good, because I have no money, so give it to me.' And he gave me the trailer."
Cunin used the trailer that year as the first sukkah-on-wheels. After the holiday, he hooked it up to the back of his Chevy Nova, set up two large bullhorns in front, and drove the contraption to Federation headquarters where he drove around the parking lot, shouting, "Give your child a free Jewish education! Call Chabad!" through the bullhorns. "It was beautiful," he recalls.
Today Cunin controls more than $35 million in assets and broke ground in June on a $10 million girls' school on Pico Boulevard. His latest project, Chabad Garden Preschool, a collaboration with Childrens Hospital Los Angeles, will service the education, emotional and health needs of low-income families and their children, and is presented as a model of integrated academic and medical programs.
But by the mid-1980s, his "act first and finance later" style of conducting business had landed him $18 million in debt and on the verge of collapse. At the 11th hour, he was saved by a fortuitous $21 million estate left to him by Hermine Weinberg, an elderly woman whom Cunin had listened to when no one else would. (Her family took Chabad to court to contest the will, and Cunin ended up with $21 million. It wasn't her entire estate.)
Since that windfall, combined with two other $10 million donations, Cunin has never come close to collapse again. But on the inside of a door in his office are tacked up dozens of yellowing index cards, each one documenting what he owed to a particular bank, organization or individual in the 1980s. Whenever he's feeling cocky, he takes a look at the cards.
Over the years, Cunin has also amassed quite a collection of Hollywood supporters. One of the biggest is film producer and philanthropist Jerry Weintraub, whose producing credits include "Ocean's 11," "Diner" and the "Karate Kid" series. Weintraub first met Cunin 20 years ago, when he arrived at his office one morning to see a black-hatted rabbi sitting in his waiting room. Weintraub walked past Cunin into his inner office, buzzed his secretary, told her to hand the rabbi a check for $10,000 and get rid of him.
"That's the sum I usually give," Weintraub says. "I'm involved with a lot of philanthropy, and rabbis are always coming to me for money." This rabbi was different. He refused the check and demanded to see Weintraub in person. Stunned by the audacity, Weintraub agreed; "A rabbi who turns down $10,000, I had to let him in."
Weintraub became a major feather in Cunin's cap, helping him restructure his crippling debt and eventually becoming co-chair for the telethon. A fellow Bronx native, Weinberg says he likes Cunin's style.
"Most of the Jews out here, the Beverly Hills crowd, they don't like Chasidic Jews. They're afraid of them, or embarrassed by them. I think they're great."
It's 8 a.m., the morning after last year's telethon, and Cunin is already in his office. He should be exhausted, after dancing past midnight the previous evening, but he's ready to rock 'n' roll. He has a lot of follow-up calls to make, to remind donors to send in their pledges. "This is our major presence for the year," he notes. "All our major gifts tie back to the telethon. You know that $21 million gift? She was a telethon watcher."
The phone rings. It's a woman whose actor son has a drug problem. They were at the telethon last night and are now staying in a nearby hotel while she tries to convince her son to enter Chabad's rehab center. "We need to get him into treatment as soon as possible," Cunin tells her. "I hate to be so frank, but we have to take a tough stance." Cunin says he'll send over "a couple guys" to help move the mother into an apartment.
"Don't worry, we'll take care of the rent until you're on your feet," he tells her. "Put the boy on the phone." Cunin listens to the young man for a while, then begins rolling his eyes and humming "Home on the Range."
"Listen, my friend, I wrote all the songs in the book," he says sternly. "You're a successful actor, but if you're not willing to make an appointment at the center and get off the range, I can't do more for you. Here, talk to Meir." Cunin hands the phone to Meir Cohen, a gray-bearded Israeli rabbi who flies in once a month to do counseling at the rehab center. Cohen listens to the young man for a minute, then puts his hand over the receiver and whispers to Cunin, "He says he doesn't want to go in. He sees his psychiatrist every day, and he says that's enough."
"Bubbe meises [old wives' tales], the psychiatrist," Cunin grumbles. "His mother says he won't eat. Get him into the program or he'll be deader than a doornail."
Hanging up, Cunin sighs and looks at the picture of Schneerson hanging on the wall behind his desk. "When the Rebbe left us, he gave us a phenomenal yearning that doesn't let us stop for a second," he says. "Another building, another human being, another good deed. The Rebbe said, 'Do what you can to bring Moshiach,' so you do more and more. A girls' school in the morning. A drug facility. Poor people. Do what you can to bring Moshiach. Not think what you can. Not verbiage of what you can. Do what you can."
Cunin then picks up the phone, and dials another number noting, "It's just a question of jumping over the obstacles. Of seizing the moment."
Sue Fishkoff is a freelance writer living in Pacific Grove and the author of "The Rebbe's Army: Inside the World of Chabad-Lubavitch," scheduled for publication by Schocken Books in March 2003.