The Friends of the Israel Defense Forces (FIDF) celebrated its 70th year at the Hilton on Wednesday, October 17, 2018, with cocktails beginning at the early hour of 5:30 PM. This annual gala used to be held at the Waldorf-a magnificent venue. Since the Waldorf’s closing, the organization is forced to use the Hilton being that it is the only space able to accommodate over 1,000 people.
The FIDF was created in 1981, fulfilling David Ben-Gurion’s vision of an American pillar of support for Israel’s soldiers with more than 15 branches in the United States and Panama. In 2016, the organization gave: 4,025 impact scholarships to combat veterans; educational support to 5,000 soldiers post-service; necessities such as furniture and food vouchers to more than 8,000 soldiers in-need; supported 710 wounded veterans; and adopted 8 brigades supporting 30,000 soldiers.
While I felt a longing for the Waldorf there was still a lot to look forward to including the speech of Gen. Gadi Eisenkot-IDF Chief of the General Staff. Unfortunately, due to the tensions in Gaza he was forced to return to Israel. This dinner is ultimately about the soldiers in Israel who sacrifice their lives on a daily basis to ensure the safety of the Jewish people. Tonight, there were more than 1,000 people gathered to profess their love for Israel and hear the stories of the heroic men, and more importantly women. Another aspect I missed from prior years, was the live satellite hookup from Israel where dinner attendees were able to view real time footage of soldiers on duty.
The focus of tonight was sort of #MeToo meets the IDF-the recounting of brave women who participate in leadership positions in the army. The FIDF is one of those organizations, similar to Robin Hood and UJA, that is able to raise exorbitant sums of money with last year’s contributions reaching $128 million. The California gala has become a celebrity-studded event where Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sylvester Stallone, and Robert De Niro are regulars.
Tonight some regulars from the New York crowd were missing including Sheldon and Miriam Adelson, Nily Falic and Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein of the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews (IFCJ). Other regular attendees of the FIDF gala were also no-shows. People such as the Adelsons, the Falic family and Rabbi Eckstein are multi-million dollar contributors. In 2017 at the Western FIDF dinner, it was reported that Rabbi Eckstein made a generous donation of $5.5 million, bringing his total donations to the FIDF over the years to over $40 million.
However, not to worry. Real estate moguls Ziel Feldman, David Halpern and Ofer Yardeni made up for their absence along with dignitaries Danny Danon and Dani Dayan — I wonder how many times these two are confused. Arthur Stark (who was recently elected as Chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations) and Peter Weintraub are incredibly successful, busy men who choose to devote their time to Israel and the Jewish people. Malcolm Hoenlein, who is a ubiquitous site at Jewish and Israeli charitable events in New York City was also a shining presence at the gala. Hoenlein is the current executive vice chairman of the Presidents Conference and will remain as CEO after his tenure is over. He has served the organization for decades with valor, courage and tireless dedication.
Weintraub has the looks of a movie star and the gregarious personality of a television talk show host-I can picture him hosting “Family Feud.” Stark was the president of “Bed Bath and Beyond” until he relinquished his position at the company to assume the chairmanship of the Presidents Conference. He has two sons who have served in the Israeli army. These two men are the real deal: donating time, money and sweat to the Jewish people on a daily basis despite their hectic lifestyles. Weintraub remarked that the two main focal points of the FIDF are education and building: having provided educational support in post-service life to more than 7,000 soldiers in 2017 and recently building a $70 million edifice in the Negev.
Another magnificent new program entitled “Witnesses in Uniform” united 380 IDF officers in 2017 with bereaved families, and Holocaust survivors on 5-day trips through Holocaust sites in Poland to strengthen the participants commitment to the State of Israel. The evening began with a delicious cocktail hour that was more like a wedding than a dinner-dozens of stations serving duck, meat and dumplings wherever you looked. Whereas last year attendees complained they should be serving wine from Israel not California tonight all the wine was from Israel-including a free Israeli bottle to take home. For a $1,000 ticket price dinner, hors d’oeuvres and a spectacular program were given-this is the best deal in town.
The ballroom could have held an additional 400 people and I think the FIDF needs to break its 37-year habit of not advertising-if only to expose more people to its critical mission. Case in point: Last week, the publisher of the Jewish Voice met the national director and CEO of the FIDF, Major General (Res) Meir Klifi-Amir at the “Gift of Life” Marrow Registry gala at Cipriani’s and queried him as to why the media was not informed of the dinner and why they did not make any efforts to promote the dinner through the kind of publicity that only Jewish newspapers can provide.
Mr. Ben Hooren was told that promotion of the dinner was not necessary as the organization was content with the amount of money that they had been raising and implied that they did not see a need to attract others who would be more than willing to contribute. Mr. Ben Hooren’s assessment of the lack of interest in promoting the dinner on the part of the leadership of the FIDF amounted to what he termed a “cocky attitude” – almost bordering on arrogance and complete dismissal of the facts.
The program began with phenomenal cantor Netanel Hershtik singing the national anthem with the IDF orchestra performing the Hatikvah. The night was expertly choreographed with films and musical performances that were executed to perfection including Renowned Israeli singer and former X Factor Israel television personality Shiri Maimon, who recently starred as Roxie in Chicago on Broadway. She performed together with soldiers of the IDF Musical Ensemble, as well as with two of her own songs. “If you have money, and you donate it for Israel and for soldiers, I think it’s amazing, and I’m happy to be part of it,” Maimon told Arutz Sheva.
The 37-year-old, who was born in Haifa and raised in Kiryat Haim, rose to fame on the Israeli premier talent reality show, Kokhav Nolad, as the first runner-up in 2003. Maimon’s first single, “Ad SheTavin Oti” (Until You Understand Me) was released in 2004, and her debut album, Shiri Maimon, went gold selling over 20,000 copies in a few months. In 2005, she represented Israel in the Eurovision Song Contest. In 2013, she became one of the judges for the first season of The X Factor Israel, where she stayed on for the following two seasons.
Brigadier General Tal Kelman spoke of the unprecedented friendship between the U.S. and Israel with Israel’s recent purchase of the F35-the most advanced fighter plane in the world-with close United States cooperation. Kelman said that for the first time ever American soldiers had arrived in Israel to fight on Israeli soil. Later I had the opportunity to speak with Kelman who flew from Israel for the dinner and said the movie “Top Gun” was an inspiration for him and other pilots when they were training-although he said the actors were too “show-offy”. Kelman said there were currently 60 women in the air force and the first woman operational squadron commander was recently appointed. Israeli born Kelman had a strong British accent which he said he picked up from his English parents and from spending three years in England.
We were then introduced to Captain Or who is the only female commander of the Patriot battery who was recently featured in “The Times of Israel” for shooting down a Syrian plane after it entered Israeli airspace in July. Or, who was visiting New York for the first time, said she knew as a kid she wanted to be in the IDF and recalled her uncle dying by sniper fire the day she entered the army. Or said she was proud to be one of the best patriot shooters in the world-you go girl. Some other inspiring women presented were: Or Ben-Yehuda who was injured in combat and received a General Citation for her bravery joined on the stage by her mother Professor Dina Ben Yehuda who had also served heroically in the Israeli army and was now Head of Hematology at Hadassah Medical Center-this was a powerful one-two punch.
After all these inspirational women were showcased it was now time for the most important part of the evening- the fundraising portion-as these soldiers desperately need financial support. Peter Weintraub exhorted the audience to donate generously and unlike years past he did not admonish donors to make their speeches brief. A Texan headed to the microphone to say he was representing a deceased couple with no heirs who left their entire estate to the FIDF with this year’s proceeds alone totaling $5 million.
There was a quiet unassuming man named Mark Perlman, who donated $1.6 million with little fanfare. This is the only dinner where most donations are given in increments of $100,000. Weintraub, who himself gave $300,000, announced they had raised $32.15 million-not bad for a night without Sheldon Adelson. The evening concluded with some more musical performances from Shiri Maimon and the IDF ensemble. Before I left I was introduced to Mike Weiss who had graduated John Hopkins and was now in a reconnaissance unit in the Israeli army; a lone soldier, who because of organizations akin to FIDF, was not alone at all.
By: Lieba Nesis
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