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A Telethon With Tradition!

August 29, 2000|BEVERLY BEYETTE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

This is no mere telethon, said Rabbi Boruch Shlomo Cunin, just before jumping up once again to join in a spirited dance. "It's a statement of brotherhood."

To say the least.

Here's a sampling of the action at "L'Chaim to Life!," the Chabad Orthodox Jewish movement's 20th annual fund-raising telecast Sunday night from the studios of KCET on Sunset Boulevard:

* Rabbi Cunin, white beard spilling down the front of his black frock coat, doing a Highlands fling of sorts with actor Jon Voight to the music of a bagpipe-and-drums trio calling themselves the Wicked Tinkers.

* Radio personality-author Dennis Prager, who had come to play the accordion, explaining, "It shows how much I love this organization." Prager, who would soon join the Hasidic men in a clapping, high-stepping dance, said, "I've never met an unhappy Chabad rabbi. It gives God a good name."

There also was Jayne Meadows, in super-size, glitter-framed glasses, kibitzing with husband Steve Allen, who'd come to play the piano; African American actor Robert Doqui appealing for a return to moral values; and a pan flutist, a harmonica player, a cantor or two, Valerie Harper, Jack Klugman and Dist. Atty. Gil Garcetti.

Actor Elliot Gould, looking back to the first telethon, which raised $1 million to rebuild Chabad House in Westwood, after a fire destroyed it, addressed the improbability of Hasidim undertaking such a fund-raiser. "Most of them never even saw a telethon and don't own TV sets."

Indeed, Hasidic Jews, following traditions that date back 300 years to Eastern Europe, eschew many of the trappings of modern life. But Rabbi Cunin, the West Coast director of the Chabad Lubavitch movement, is a man who believes that miracles have to be nudged along.

And, for him, Sunday night's seven-hour telecast was "a miracle." When the final tally flashed in lights on the tote board, it was just over $6 million, up from last year's $4.5 million. It was also a step into the future for the Chabad movement.

In a small anteroom, Rabbi Simcha Backman, who was introduced as "a computer in the form of a rabbi," was supervising the interactive Web cast--a first for the telethon--by which viewers worldwide could log onto http://www.chabad.com and give money or ask questions.

Two hours into the show, 200 questions had been submitted. A sampling: "I'm not Jewish. Can I give to Chabad?" You bet. "Is the moshiach (messiah) coming in my lifetime?" No predictions, although a poll of Internet telethon watchers overwhelmingly said yes.

More questions: "How long does it take to grow your long hair?" Quipped one of the rabbis, "Three to five months, depending on how much gefilte fish and matzo ball soup you eat."

One Internet user wanted to know if the members of the bagpipe-and-drums trio were Jewish. Well, no, said drummer Warren Patrick Casey, but "I have a Jewish girlfriend. I'm basically kind of a pagan." He noted that another member of the trio is Buddhist.

Throughout the evening, young men who have been treated at Chabad's residential drug rehab center at Olympic and Hauser boulevards paraded up to the mike to give thanks. Also at the mike was telethon chair, producer Jerry Weintraub, who is a Conservative Jew. The Hasidim, he said later, are doing the best job of "carrying on our heritage. It's important to me to keep their light lit."

Weintraub, whose left arm was in a sling due to a bike accident, was literally winging it on stage. "All my TelePrompTer says is Jerry Weintraub--ad-lib."

The free-form nature of the evening is what initially attracted actor Voight more than a decade ago.

This is one event, said Catholic-born Voight, where people "know they're not going to get anything plastic. It's quite charming."

Between on-camera stints, Voight recalled his first meeting with Cunin, where he decided the rabbi was "my kind of guy." In his first telethon appearance, Voight said he was "a little nervous. [But] the music started and all of a sudden I was dancing with the rabbi. It's a free-form dance, thank God. All you have to do is jump around a little bit."

The public has apparently noticed. Recently, Voight said, he was intercepted at a supermarket by a little old lady who told him, "You're a good dancer--and you're getting better."

Shortly before midnight, Cunin, a seemingly tireless 59-year-old, was still dancing, still appealing for pledges, for that miracle that would push the telethon over the $5-million barrier. It came--with another $1 million to spare.

Because virtually all expenses are underwritten, that means $6 million for Chabad's nonsectarian outreach programs in California. These include the drug rehab center and programs for the hungry and the homeless. It did not go unnoticed that this was also the 50th anniversary of the late Rebbe Menachem Schneerson taking over leadership of the movement. Said Cunin, "You can feel his hand on the steering wheel. What other explanation is there?"

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