By Duke Helfand, LA Times
The dancing rabbis are whirling around the stage of the Chabad “To Life” Telethon, unmistakably Hasidic in their thick beards and black coats.
But who’s the tall dancer with the clean shave and long blond hair?
As longtime viewers of the telethon know, he’s Jon Voight of “Midnight Cowboy” and a lifelong Catholic.
And yet here he is year after year, dancing with the rabbis in a Hollywood television studio, a black yarmulke on his head.
The 69-year-old actor is virtually synonymous with the telethon — a hero to his hosts, a curiosity to some viewers. But no other big-name guest — not Adam Sandler, Bob Dylan or Magic Johnson, to name a few — has matched his sheer enthusiasm for Chabad or his close relationship with its West Coast director, Rabbi Boruch Shlomo Cunin.
“A real super mensch,” Cunin, 67, calls him.
Voight has celebrated Hanukkah with Cunin. He attends Yom Kippur services at the synagogue of another longtime rabbi friend and speaks lovingly about “the holy Torah.”
He has studied the works of Chabad’s venerated Lubavitcher “Rebbe,” the late Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson. He can tick off the names of revered Talmudic scholars — Maimonides and the Maharal, for instance — the way others throw out the names of famous baseball players.
And every September, he returns to join the dancing rabbis. This Sunday he’ll make his 18th telethon appearance.
All of which raises the question: Why?
“The relationship I have with the Cunins is very deep,” said Voight, who has gotten to know the rabbi’s large extended family. “Any time you can put together people from different cultures, it gives us great heart.”
Voight says he is smitten by the ideal of performing mitzvahs, good deeds, and the Jewish tradition of scholarship, calling Jews “the conscience of the world.”
He also says he feels energized by Chabad’s charity work and by Cunin, a fellow New Yorker who arrived in California more than 40 years ago and established a mini-empire of Hasidic life that now includes more than 200 Jewish community centers, dozens of schools, camps and a residential drug treatment center that serves Jews and non-Jews alike.
“How could I not be at their side when they ask for help, not for themselves, but for the poor, the meek, the unfortunate,” Voight said at one telethon. “So please give generously to Chabad. They are the light and hope for all.”
That message — repeated by a parade of celebrities over the years — has been a boon to Chabad’s bottom line.
The telethon raised more than $7 million last year to support what Chabad calls the largest network of educational and nonsectarian social services under Jewish auspices on the West Coast.
Cunin launched the event in 1980 after a fire destroyed Chabad’s West Coast headquarters in Westwood, killing three young men. The actor Carroll O’Connor was its first celebrity host, along with the late comedian Jan Murray. They embraced what was then a little-known group of Hasidim, an ultra-orthodox wing of Judaism that follows strict religious codes but believes in reaching out to less religious Jews.
Voight has been the most consistent face for 18 of the telethon’s 28 years, sometimes sending video greetings when he’s filming overseas. Longtime viewers have watched his long blond hair give way to silver-gray. On every occasion, he has worn a yarmulke. And more than once, he has donned a black fedora.
“Every year,” Murray once quipped, “he looks more Jewish.”
Voight grew up in Yonkers, a city on the Hudson River north of Manhattan. His mother was a housewife, his father a golf pro at a German-Jewish country club in nearby Scarsdale. Voight became acquainted with the ways of his father’s Jewish friends.
“The culture is encouraging of education, debate,” he said. It’s “full of humor, full of love for all people.”
Voight attended the all-boys Archbishop Stepinac High School in White Plains before studying art at the Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C.
He considered the priesthood but opted for an acting career that has spanned five decades and earned him an Academy Award nomination in 1969 for “Midnight Cowboy” and a best-actor Oscar for the 1978 film “Coming Home.”
In the mid-1980s, Voight experienced what he has called a period of spiritual seeking. He studied Indian philosophy. And with his film managers, who are Jewish, he began to explore the Old Testament and the works of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, one of Conservative Judaism’s most influential scholars.
When time permitted, he attended weekly Torah classes taught by an Orthodox rabbi, Yitzchok Adlerstein,
“He asked thoughtful questions,” Adlerstein said. “He’s an avid student of religion and the Bible.”
Voight’s spiritual interests soon intersected. He needed a spot for a news conference to publicize the plight of the Hopi Indians. A friend put him in touch with a local rabbi, Jerry Cutler, who found a social hall at a synagogue for the event.
Voight asked if he could return the favor. As it turned out, Cutler and his wife Jeff were writing and producing the Chabad telethon. And that’s how Voight met Cunin. Their first encounter is still fresh in Voight’s mind: He was sitting on a coach in Cunin’s office when a family appeared in need of furniture.
“I found myself picking up the couch with a couple of rabbis,” Voight told a telethon audience. “We put the couch in the back of a truck. It was the most amazing thing.”
Since then, Voight has become Chabad’s most visible emissary not only in Hollywood but also in the political sphere.
In 2005, Voight testified for Chabad before a congressional commission examining Russia’s refusal to release more than 12,000 books by Schneerson and previous generations of Chabad rabbis dating to the 18th century.
“Since I’m of Catholic faith, I understand the basic values of life, including the Ten Commandments. And they say thou shall not steal,” Voight testified, as Cunin and other Chabad rabbis listened quietly.
Turning his comments to the Russian government, he added: “Please release Rabbi Schneerson’s books. It could prove to the world that you are willing to try to heal the wounds of the survivors of the Holocaust. Jews and Christians alike are praying for this resolve.”
Voight’s efforts have endeared him to Chabad and the Cunin clan. Cunin’s children and grandchildren know Voight simply as Jon. Some of the youngsters have visited his home to swim and play soccer.
“He’s part of the extended mishpacha,” said Rabbi Chaim Cunin, 34, the telethon’s executive producer, using the Hebrew word for family.
Voight jokes that appearing on the telethon made him famous. “I was shopping at a neighborhood supermarket,” he told one telethon audience. “I happened to notice an elderly couple and they were peeking at me . . . through the aisles. They were whispering. And I knew what was going on.
“Finally, the elderly man got the courage to approach me. He came over . . . and looked up at me and he said, ‘I know you. I know that face.’
“And I said, ‘Yes you do, I’m a dancer on the Chabad telethon.’
“And he said, ‘That’s it!'”