By Lieba Nesis
The Talmud states, “whoever destroys a soul, it is considered as if he destroyed an entire world. And whoever saves a life, it is considered as if he saved an entire world.” This aphorism has unfortunately never been more apropos. As I headed out on Tuesday May 24th to the 3rd Annual Friends of United Hatzalah of Israel Gala at Chelsea Piers with cocktails beginning at 5:30 PM, my phone alerted me to a mass shooting that occurred at an elementary school in Texas. I felt tears welling up imagining the families that would lose their prepubescent children to the face of evil. Ambivalent as to whether to attend a celebration I realized the only antidote to evil is doing good-the raison d’être of the Hatzalah organization.
The event was sold out weeks in advance with ticket prices at $1,000 for adults and $500 for those aged 36 and under. This gala is one of my favorites as who can resist the opportunity to purchase a $36,000 ambucycle or a $2,500 defibrillator to facilitate the saving of lives. Famous for its rapid response time, Hatzalah arrives an average of less than three minutes across the country of Israel and 90 seconds in metropolitan areas. 48-year-old founder Eli Beer, has elevated the charity to stratospheric heights as he travels the globe raising money to fund the Israeli operation, which has 6,200 volunteers. Eli himself was nearly a casualty of the pandemic over two years ago, as he remained intubated in a coma for over a month after contracting the deadly coronavirus on a fundraising trip in the United States.
With the assistance of top grade medical care in Miami he has slowly made a full recovery and come back ten times stronger. Eli exudes warmth and enthusiasm readily embracing attendees with a full hearted hug and smile. He has also become a fundraising powerhouse collecting over $18 million at the December gala in Miami which featured Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg who donated $5 million. Tonight’s illustrious honorees Cathy and Allan Weiss and Chantal and Al Gindi similarly ensured the evening would be a success as over $5 million was raised with 750 people at the seated dinner and over 250 at the after party. Eli noted the diversity of the crowd with 30 percent comprised of those under 35-a remarkable feat.
The evening was all about heroes honoring Dr. Zev Neuwirth who helped save Eli’s life in Miami two years prior, and recently traveled with his two sons to the Ukrainian border of Moldova to assist civilians with no access to medical care. Neuwirth is no stranger to tragedy: After losing his wife to a brain tumor in 2009, he picked up his four children moved to Miami and became a doctor at the age of 40 to devote himself to a life of service. Another brave heroine, Hatzalah volunteer Jen Attias, flew in from Israel to thank Hatzalah for allowing her to save lives. Jennifer lost her only brother to suicide two years ago, and continues to suffer with the knowledge that she arrived 48 hours too late to rescue her only sibling. Instead of wallowing in misery, Jennifer utilizes every spare moment to save lives as a Hatzalah volunteer-even if it means leaving her children in the middle of dinner or homework.
Jennifer’s raw emotions left her unable to speak as the anniversary of her brother’s death was two days prior. She joined in a commemoration for Noam Raz, a Hatzalah volunteer and Jewish hero, who died on May 13, 2022 in Jenin from sniper fire after having secretly served in Israel’s counterterrorism unit-leaving behind six children after 23 years of service. Receiving a standing ovation the headiness of the evening was overwhelming. Thankfully, there was some levity as honorees and movie star looking couple Cathy and Allan Weiss gifted Eli his first custom made orange tuxedo to celebrate the evening. Allan made his fortune in tuxedos and he and his Valentino clad wife Cathy, enjoy giving back whenever they can. Al and Chantal Gindi were the young honorees and part of the famed philanthropic family, who own Gindi Equities, a real estate company that purchases and renovates investment properties. They recently sponsored a plane to take 150 Ukrainian Jews to Israel making it a custom to donate a portion to charity each time they purchase a property.
The reach of Hatzalah is vast, dealing with more than 675,000 emergencies including assisting with the Meron tragedy where 45 Jews were crushed and then weeks later arriving in Miami to aid with the Surfside condo collapse. Alan Dershowitz made a cameo appearance to encourage those donating to give double what they normally would-while he gave $2,500 due to a “lack of funds.” Thankfully there were plenty of generous donors including Mark and Erica Gerson. Mark is a graduate of Yale Law School and co-founder of the Gerson Lehrman Group. He is also chairman of United Hatzalah as he and his wife donate more than $5 million per year to the charity-having raised their contribution due to the Ukranian war. This low key power couple travels the globe to aid others with very little fanfare. Active in medical missionary work in Africa, they have unassumingly changed the face of global philanthropy. Erica, a reform rabbi, loves to educate others, including her children, on the importance of giving back.
As the fundraising portion ensued, Amy from Dallas recounted her husband’s near death experience in Italy less than a month ago after contracting coronavirus. Told by Dolce & Gabbana to leave the country due to inadequate medical care she called Hatzalah who sent over a team 24 hours later and saved her husband’s life. She gave $200,000 with Eli playfully remarking, “that was a trip worth making let’s get her some more tequila”. Eli also revealed he was attempting to lose another 30 pounds after weighing in at 250 and recently dropping 20, requesting attendees to sponsor his weight loss with contributions-with the Gindis’ offering $1,000 per pound and Mark Gerson donating $20,000 per pound if he keeps it off a year.
At the conclusion of the evening guests headed to the $250 after party where 300 young people socialized and ate dessert on the patio of Chelsea Piers-the singles portion of the night was a home-run. The young crowd was enthusiastically fraternizing with internet stars Mordechai Weiss and Rudy Rochman holding court as DJ’s spun hip hop tunes. As the clock struck midnight most of the crowd had exited, except for Eli Beer: he was still enjoying the intoxicating effects of a superlative evening in his custom orange Hatzalah tuxedo.