The UJA Federation of New York held its annual Wall Street dinner on Monday December 11, 2017 at the Hilton hotel with cocktails beginning at 5 PM. This event gathers “the who’s who of Wall Street” with over 2,000 wolves coming together to pay tribute to UJA and to honorees Lee Fixel, and Howard Lutnick. The cocktail party is normally held in the lobby of the Hilton but this year it was in a back room where guests posed for pictures and fraternized excitedly. There was a definite electricity in the air which may have been due to the prosperity Wall Street is currently experiencing. Only at a Jewish event would you be warned in an email that there is no formal meal during the program so “we encourage you to bring in food from the cocktail party.” Thankfully, they informed me otherwise I would have been stuck without food or drink for an entire hour-and-a-half-a situation no jew wants to find themselves in. Even better news was that each seat contained some meat sushi and a cookie so I did not have to go hungry during the program.
The dais of this event contained billionaire after billionaire with the front row reserved for the giants of Wall Street including: John Paulson, Robert Kapito, Daniel Och, Jeffrey Aronson, Leon Wagner, Jerry Levin, Jeff Schoenfeld, David Moore, Morris Offit, Robert Rubin, Gary Claar and females Barbara Novick, Alisa Levin, Esta Stecher and Linda Mirels-the most women I can remember. This dinner has no fundraising portion and no singing of the national anthem or Hatikvah. Perhaps, on the Street where time is worth money the anthem is a frivolous pursuit-I suspect there wouldn’t be any kneelers in the crowd. My invitation also stated the after-party would start at 8 PM and sure enough at 7:57 PM the program concluded-these business guys don’t mess around.
Every year there is one star speaker who wows the crowd and this year it was honoree Howard Lutnick, CEO of Cantor Fitzgerald. Last year Michael Douglas had the crowd mesmerized with his speech on the importance of Judaism to his family, and in 2015 Michael Milken gave a brilliant speech on the history of Wall Street. This year Lutnick described the 9/11 catastrophe and how it transformed his life. But first Robert Kapito, President of BlackRock, announced this year was the most successful ever raising $29 million and selling out weeks in advance to 2,000 attendees. He also joked it was the best night to get a reservation at a Chinese Restaurant since all the Jews were at the Hilton. Kudos to CEO of UJA Eric Goldstein who went from being a partner at Paul Weiss to taking UJA to soaring heights while never aging a day-that is no easy feat. President of UJA Jeff Schoenfeld recounted all the great work UJA has done this past year including sending 28 airplanes to Puerto Rico full of food and clean water to those in areas severely damaged by the hurricane.
Mega philanthropist John Paulson who donated $5 million to The Jerusalem Arts Center this year reiterated UJA’s successful year and said they stood on the shoulders of giants Felix Warburg, Ace Greenberg and Gustave Levy. Paulson praised Lutnick for gathering 300 people to the ballroom tonight more than almost any honoree. Tonight Howard Lutnick was receiving the Gustave Levy award and Paulson was excited to have former U.S. Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin as a keynote speaker to bring the memory of Gustave Levy alive. Rubin worked with Levy for ten years at Goldman Sachs starting in 1966 until Gustave died in 1976 and described Levy as a giant with a ferocious work ethic-noting he was often difficult to work with. Gustave was the first Jewish Chairman of the New York Stock Exchange and Rubin recalled Nelson Rockefeller eulogizing Levy by declaring at his funeral that nobody would be able to fill his void. Rubin concluded by stating that “Gus” cared enormously about civic and community life and that’s why organizations such as UJA remain extremely important.
Daniel Och, head of Oz Management, then joked that he worked with Rubin at Goldman and he [Och] was at the bottom five while Rubin was at the top 5 and he was therefore honored to be on the same stage as Rubin who Och felt came the closest in greatness to Gustave Levy. Och said the most important thing one could do for UJA or any charity was to devote time. David Moore, head of Moore Holdings presented Lee Fixel, Partner at Tiger Global Management, with the Alan Greenberg Young Leadership Award calling Fixel one of the great young philanthropists in the United States. Fixel joked that he was allotted ten minutes to speak by UJA but in the spirit of philanthropy was donating half his time to Howard Lutnick. Before Lutnick spoke a video was shown of The Duchess of York, Sarah Ferguson, calling Lutnick the most brilliant businessman and the finest friend she knows-I hope the royal family didn’t hear that. I must admit Ferguson seemed a bit out of place at a UJA Wall Street dinner but who doesn’t love a red-headed royal. Paulson presented Lutnick with the Gustave Levy award and commented that Lutnick should think of this evening as an adult bar mitzvah. Lutnick recalled his recent trip to Israel with UJA which Paulson encouraged by giving him a hug and how that led him to being honored this evening.
Lutnick gave a highly personal speech describing the death of both his parents within a short time frame when he was 16. While he acknowledged that many people encounter tragedy he recalled his father dying at the hands of a nurse who made a mistake with his chemotherapy shot and his mother dying of breast cancer shortly before with no uncles or aunts wanting to help his family in this sticky situation. Lutnick was in his first year of Haverford College at the time and dropped out after one week since he could no longer afford tuition and felt he had to take care of his brother. He recalled Haverford calling him on the phone a month later and asking him to come back for free. “I ended up having the life I had because they were being good human beings and they were doing it for themselves” remarked Lutnick.
Fast forward more than twenty-five years later to September 11th 2001 where Lutnick was presented with the challenge of a lifetime when he narrowly escaped death by bringing his son to school while most of his co-workers were dying in the World Trade Center. Lutnick said he wasn’t going to allow himself to not be a good human being and set out to take care of the families because he wanted to break the chain of what had happened to him when he was a teenager. “We started with 960 New York based employees and we lost 658”, Lutnick lugubriously recalled with the death of his 36-year old brother Gary and best friend Doug being one of the hundreds of colleagues who perished.
“In January 2002 Cantor had 150 employees and now we have 4,000 in New York and 12,000 around the world” Lutnick proudly stated. He also spoke of his pact with Cantor employees to give 25% of their paycheck in the first five years of 9/11 to the families of Cantor Fitzgerald. “The news media said 25% of nothing is nothing but they should have known better,” said Lutnick who has since raised $180 million for the families and more than $303 million for charity. Lutnick also holds a “charity day” every September 11th where all the proceeds of that day, which total about $12 million, are donated to charity.
An especially moving part of his speech was when he spoke about a mother who took her kids to Disneyland three weeks after being widowed in 9/11 and how mothers caring for their young children walk loftily above ground. Lutnick encouraged the audience to catch the opportunity to change someone’s life. After receiving a standing ovation, Lutnick posed for pictures with his beautiful wife Allison and left the event with a triumphant smile. The closing bell party contained gambling, music and more food-the best food of all however, was the “food for thought” this epic dinner provided.
By: Lieba Nesis