A lot of planning goes into preparing for a large event.
Typically, when it comes to the film festival, after deciding on a theme for the evening, Philip Silverberg of the Au Contraire Film Festival sends me films on the topic of addiction and my wife Karen and I sift through them, looking for those movies that stand out, deliver a knock-out message, and portray our mission and beliefs related to addiction.
This year was very different. It was harder than it had ever been, and it was the most rewarding evening of my career as Director of Chabad Lifeline.
I'd like to take you back to the beginning.
It was all Jennifer's idea
It began when Jennifer Kotry, a member of our amazing team for many years and Montreal's only Certified Sex Addiction Therapist, sent me a video of Eli Nash's TEDx talk. She proposed that we do something similar at our event; that in addition to the film, we find a recovering sex addict who will share their story in front of our audience.
I was immediately on board, and I reached out to Phil to ask what he thought of the idea. He asked me to email him Eli's video. Next morning, I was sitting in my office, when Phil called. "I booked the speaker," he told me.
"The one who did the TED talk you sent me."
I was ecstatic. I called Eli, and discovered that he grew up Chabad; he's from the same Jewish group I belong to, the same Jewish group that gives Chabad Lifeline part of its name. Not only that, but he studied in the Chabad Yeshiva (Rabbinical College) here in Montreal, the same school where my son teaches!
The bravest couple I have ever met
Eli and I had several conversations over the following weeks. They consisted of discussing details about his speech and the event, and me expressing my admiration for his courage and resilience.
During one of our conversations, he mentioned how supportive his wife was of his recovery, and I asked if she would be willing to speak about her experiences. I have yet to hear of the spouse of an addict sharing her account to a live audience. I told him that I believe a speech delivered by his wife would leave a strong impact and highlight how important it is for everyone affected by the addict (spouse, children, parents, siblings) to get help, which is a core belief at Chabad Lifeline.
He loved the idea and spoke to his wife Fraidy, who agreed and began preparing her talk.
At this point, we had a beautiful evening prepared. We had settled on a short, powerful film and were excited to introduce Eli and Fraidy to the audience, and help dispel the stigma of sex addiction. I turned my focus to selling tickets for the event and had our Marketing Director start preparing material for emails, social media, and print.
Then Eli brought up Lamar.
Michael Flinker comes to the rescue
To be honest, I had no idea who Lamar was. I don't follow basketball, nor pop culture.
Eli was excited about the opportunity to bring two-time NBA champion, Olympic medalist, and reality TV star Lamar Odom to Montreal to speak to a live audience about his sex addiction for the first time. But me? I was happy with our lineup.
I called one of my mentors Michael Flinker for guidance. At the time, I had no idea what a huge basketball fan he was. He was thrilled about the idea, and rushed over to Chabad Lifeline to meet in person. His passion convinced me that bringing Lamar would be a good idea. Lamar would draw a crowd, and Lamar would draw the media. He would help us reach so many more people.
I told Eli we were on board. Within days, we booked Lamar for his first visit to Montreal.
How our film came about
Our marketing material changed, and we began promoting the event. I spent my days setting up interviews with the media, delivering daily talks on Instagram, and making calls for tickets (in addition to my usual work at Chabad Lifeline).
Phil sent me a second short film which we added to the schedule, and at that point it occurred to me that we were going to have a theatre filled with people but no film about Chabad Lifeline.
I mentioned this to Michael Flinker and he decided to generously sponsor an infomercial about us. He brought Heidi Berger in, and we soon went from infomercial to a film with a cast, a director, lighting, locations, a script, music, and interviews. Michael sponsored it all and I am so grateful.
I cannot tell you how amazing it is to be on set and watch a script, based on a true story of people I know, come to life. Heidi Berger and her team worked quickly and efficiently, and the film was ready a week in advance, with enough time to make several edits before the final cut.
Children spend an hour with Lamar
October 24th arrived before I knew it. The event was called for 7:00 but there was much to do before it began. It was a busy day, and it included getting interviewed on CityTV and dealing with the last minute challenges that usually come up when coordinating a large event.
Many people don't know that Lamar met with a group of students from underprivileged families at 6:00. He practiced his speech in front of them and then had an honest heart to heart discussion where he took questions and answered them in his brutally honest fashion.
That hour was extremely powerful. He urged the youth to be careful of the company they keep, and to seek help if they need it. He was raw and he was amazing.
The evening was a success beyond my wildest dreams. The opening films were excellent, each one highlighting the isolation of the addict. Then came our film. Seeing it on the big screen was awesome! It blew everyone away and was one of my highlights from the night.
My reflections on the event itself
When Fraidy spoke, the entire theatre went silent. In all the years doing this evening at the Museum of Fine Arts, I have never seen an audience so enthralled during a speech. At one point I turned around to look at everyone, and it was incredible. Everyone was focused completely on her words. Even the people filming her talk were openmouthed. She spoke from the heart. Her story was courageous and very raw.
Eli followed up with a gripping account of his sex addiction. He was very open about how far he'd gone, and his speech was inspiring. The messages he delivered slammed home. He is a prime example of someone who took their weakness and turned it into a great strength. I am awed at what he has done and what he continues to do.
I loved Michael Flinker's introduction for Lamar. There was a great moment when Mike admitted how frustrated he was, as a Celtics fan, at Lamar during the 2010 NBA finals, and Lamar, who had been preparing his speech backstage, wandered out behind Mike with a big grin.
Lamar was very brave. It was the first time he had ever been so open about his addiction in front of a live audience, and he didn't hold back. He spoke quietly and with determination. He left a strong impression on me and on the audience, and I knew what an emotional toll it took on him to speak publicly and so raw for the first time.
Remarkably, not only did he sit with me after his speech and answer two of the most difficult questions people had sent in, but he also stuck around to take photographs with the hundreds in attendance, and despite his obvious exhaustion, greeted each person with a smile.
An incredibly emotional moment
The highlight of my night came during the dessert reception. A woman approached me and asked me if I was Lorne's brother.
Taken aback, I answered in the affirmative.
She got emotional, and told me that she had helped my brother 40 years ago when he was going through some of the difficult moments I described in our film. She had been watching and made the connection as I described our ordeal on camera.
My mind went back to the '70s and we reminisced about Lorne. I treasured that moment, because my memories of Lorne are so valuable. Recalling experiences that lay dormant for years was very emotional, and I'm grateful she was in attendance.
I want to thank everyone who supported, donated, attended, and were part of making the evening such a smashing success. Heleena & Eddie Wiltzer, Vicki & Stan Zack, Marcia & Michael Flinker, and Karen & Lionel Dubrofsky in particular were a huge reason so many were impacted.
Many of those in attendance were people affected by addiction. People who feel isolated because of addiction. When they saw a crowd of over 300 give Eli a standing ovation, they realized that they were not alone. Numerous people mustered their courage, and contacted or visited Chabad Lifeline following the event. Thanks to you.
If you know someone affected by addiction who can use our help, tell them about our evening. Give them our number. Let's continue giving people a second chance, so that when they reach their "top shelf" and realize that they need help, they will come to a place that will not only see them immediately, but also will deliver hope and healing to their families.
To see an album of photos from our event, click here.
If you were at the event, I would love to hear your reflections. Click here to send me an email.