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Dancing with the Rabbis

I’m not a Jew, but I play one on TV.

Over Labor Day weekend, I participated in what I consider to be the most unique show on television, the Chabad national telethon. I had seen it for the first time many years ago, and thought that I was watching a Saturday Night Live sketch about an Orthodox Jewish telethon. When I discovered it was real it made it even better!

The telethon started in 1980 when the Chabad building in Los Angeles burned down killing three men in the fire. The telethon has continued every year since, and is hosted by Rabbi Cunin. Chabad is a celebration of life, a philosophy that fits nicely with my own.

Nowadays the funds raised go to many worthwhile programs that Chabad runs including: drug and alcohol rehabilitation, community outreach, and youth programs.

Each year, I watch the telethon with great interest, waiting for the part of the telethon when they go to the “Tote Board.” As the pledge total climbs, a group of “Dancing Rabbis” enters the studio and dances around in a circle in sheer ecstasy.

I remember watching it and thinking to myself, “Why should the rabbis get to have all the fun? I want to dance with them!”

I wrote letters to the Chabad offices trying to get my chance to dance with the rabbis, but for several years it never really worked out. This year, however, the gates opened and I was invited to attend as a volunteer.

My job would be to work the telethon’s phone bank, and Rabbi Backman told me that they’d get me into one of the dance circles.

I arrived at the KSCI Studios in west Los Angeles, dressed in all black like Johnny Cash and found my way to the “green room” to meet some of God’s chosen people.

My first cultural lesson came as I small talked with a woman named Debra and extend my hand to shake hers. I quickly and awkwardly learned that Jewish women don’t shake men’s hands.

Rabbi Cunin walked through the green room and thanked everyone for volunteering. He asked me and a security guard I was talking to if we had done the Tefillin today. I didn’t know what that was, but I was pretty sure I hadn’t done it, so I followed the rabbi to his dressing room with the security guard.

He took off his black fedora revealing his yarmulke underneath. He placed his yarmulke on my head and then started to place a leather strap around my arm. He paused for a moment and asked, “Is your mother Jewish?”

“No,” I answered.

The rabbi removed the yarmulke from my head and placed it on the head of the security guard and asked him the same question. When he answered in the affirmative, Rabbi Cunin started wrapping the security guard’s arm with this strap so they could pray the Tefillin prayer.

Mushka was an early twenties production assistant who I think kind of got a kick out of me being there. Right before the telethon started, Mushka took us in to the studio.

Most of the calls were directed to a call center, and we were supposed to just pretend that we were taking pledges on the air.

Occasionally real calls came through. I took the information for three pledges. They all seemed like odd amounts to donate: Mary from Toms River, New Jersey pledged $36, a man from Los Angeles pledged $18, and 94-year old Sylvia from Ft. Lauderdale donated $26 and then proceeded to talk my ear off.

I answered the phones with a cheerful, white-bread sounding “Hello, Chabad Telethon,” until I was corrected on the pronunciation by a nearby Jewish cameraman.

“It’s Ha’bab,” he said. “Haw, Haw, like you’re clearing your throat.”

“Oh, thanks,” I said “I’ll take any advice you have.” When my phone rang the next time, I acted like I was hocking up a loogie, and I fit right in!

After one segment on the phone bank, we rotated with another group and returned to the green room. During that time, Rabbi Backman said, “Mushka, get him a yarmulke, he’s in the next dance circle.”

They got me a black satin yarmulke and attempted to bobby-pin it to the thinning hair on the back of my head. The yarmulke nicely covered my bald spot, and I started stretching my legs for my dance debut.

Instead of being with an older group of white-bearded rabbis who just kind of swayed back and forth and snapped their fingers like the Fiddler on the Roof, my group were some brown-bearded millennial rabbis-in-training with way too much energy for this Gen X-Gentile.

After the tote board hit the new total, our group raced into the studio in a line with our hands on the shoulders of the man in front of us. We quickly formed a circle holding hands and raising our arms up and down and high-kicking our legs in the air.

We danced on camera for about a minute, but then these twenty-something rabbis-in-training kept dancing for another three minutes – “Oy-Vey!” I didn’t want to break the chain, but I was huffing and puffing by the end of it. Let me tell you, Dancing with Rabbis is an intense cardio-workout!

Dancing with the Rabbis on their telethon was a crazy and irreverent experience. Everyone associated with the Chabad telethon was so warm and welcoming to me. They did me a bucketlist mitzvah, and I wholeheartedly say, “Todah!”

So, L’Chaim, Happy Hanukkah, and Shabbat Shalom to all you Jewish bucketlisters out there! May the oil in your lamp burn forever, and your tote board run out of numbers!