By David Ogul
Every year, the Jewish Federation of San Diego County honors the commitment of local men and women to the Federation’s work. The Men’s Event (for men) and Options (for women) inspire and engage Jewish San Diegans to make a difference in their community and in the lives of Jews worldwide. This year’s events are no different.
The Men’s Event
The annual gala known as the Men’s Event, which took place Oct. 25 at the Port Pavilion on Broadway Pier, is among the Jewish Federation of San Diego County’s most important fundraisers. This year’s gathering did not disappoint.
Several hundred guests were treated to a program, “Generations of Love and Hope,” that featured local stories of family philanthropy. Those highlighted included: Sergio, Roberto and Ricardo Jinich; Bernard Z”L and James Lewis; and Joel, Brian, Brad and Lou Tauber.
The largest annual gathering of men in the San Diego Jewish community featured keynote speaker Malcolm Hoenlein, longtime executive vice-chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations. The theme of his talk: “5772: A Year of Challenges and Opportunities“.
The Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations describes itself as the coordinating body on international and national concerns for 52 national Jewish organizations. We spoke with Hoenlein before the Oct. 25 event. Here are the highlights:
On the relationship between President Barack Obama and Israel: “Military cooperation is exceptional right now and has grown tremendously,” Hoenlein said, noting that sophisticated weaponry has been sent to Israel over the past three years.
So why is there an impression among many American Jews that Obama is anti-Israel?
“I think the administration got off on the wrong foot on some issues, and impressions were created.” Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s recent visit to Washington, D.C., in which he received a rousing ovation before the House of Representatives, coupled with what many would call the cool reception by the White House, “created a sense of distancing.”
Hoenlein emphasized that U.S-Israel relations remain strong. “I think the president’s (September) speech to the United Nations was exceptional,” and “Congress, on a bipartisan basis, is as supportive as it’s ever been.”
On the more significant challenges facing the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations: “The affordability of Jewish education is a major challenge.”
That, Hoenlein said, is because the inability of American Jews to get a solid Jewish education at an early age has ramifications for the nations’ support of Israel. Many young people are not as committed to Israel as in the past, he said, “and much of that grows out of a lack of Jewish education.”
There is a “process of distancing” occurring between younger American Jews and Israel today. Ties aren’t as strong. “The knowledge and emotional commitment is not the same in the younger generation as it was in 1948.”
The Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations was organized at the suggestion of then-Secretary of State John Foster Dulles, who told the several national Jewish groups addressing national and international issues concerning Israel “to get their act together” and create a unified front, a single entity that the government could engage with.
“When we act as a community, it makes us much stronger,” Hoenlein said.
Erin Gruwell is among the most famous educators in America, thanks to her innate ability to positively transform the lives of gang members and other misfits at a struggling Long Beach high school. Her story became the subject of the hit 2007 film, “The Freedom Writers,” starring Hillary Swank. Alina Spaulding is a refugee from the former Soviet Union who escaped communism with the help of several American Jewish organizations, and whose heartwarming story has moved numerous audiences across the country to tears.
Gruwell and Spaulding will be the featured guest speakers at Options: Women Changing the World, a Dec. 1 event at the Manchester Grand Hyatt that serves as one of the Jewish Federation of San Diego County’s larger annual fundraisers.
Gruwell’s story began during her first year as a teacher, after a student in her class depicted another student — an African-American boy — as someone with extremely large lips. Gruwell told the class that was the same sort of stereotype the Nazis had used against Jews to dehumanize them during the Holocaust. To her surprise, almost no one in her class knew anything about the Holocaust. That led to a screening of “Schindler’s List;” a visit from Miep Gies, the woman whose family hid Anne Frank; and a series of journals in which the students, many of whom were living through unspeakable hardships, detailed the challenges they and their families were facing.
“I chose to speak for the Jewish Federation because I beIieve that it is an organization that celebrates the power of words, the power of women and the power of philanthropy,” Gruwell said of her upcoming appearance. Her hour-long presentation, “Becoming a Catalyst for Change,” will focus on “overcoming hardships and creating positive change from within.”
Spaulding’s story is world’s away from Gruwell’s but no less inspirational. Spaulding was just 5 years old when she escaped communism and immigrated to New York with the help of Jewish organizations largely funded by Federation dollars. Her family fled after her father, an Olympic hopeful skier, became persona non grata following a serious injury that ruined his athletic career. She lived in a number of cities until she settled in Greensboro, N.C. There, she was instrumental in setting up the American Hebrew Academy, where she now serves as director of communications.
Spaulding said she remains indebted to Jewish groups across the country.
“For my parents, the obstacles of language, coupled with some illness, made the transition [from the former Soviet Union] great. There was one saving grace for us, and it was the support of the Jewish community…from Jewish Family Service to our Federation system.”
The focus of her talk at the Dec. 1 event in San Diego?
“You may not know it, and you may not sense it on a daily basis, but the work of the Federation is nothing short of miraculous and transformational. What we do with our philanthropic dollars today makes a lifelong impact on people worldwide. I am one of millions of people who serve as living proof.”
Gruwell and Spaulding won’t be the only ones honored at Options. Andrea Oster, immediate past board chair at the Federation, will receive the Anne Ratner Award “in recognition of the extraordinary leadership she has brought to Women’s Philanthropy of the Jewish Federation of San Diego County.”
Said Donna Ostrower, chief development officer for the Jewish Federation of San Diego County: “At Options we are able to share our accomplishments and plans for the coming year. This event allows us to tell the stories of those lives we touch in 70 countries around the world.”
Registration and the reception for Options begin at 5:30 p.m., and the dinner and program begin at 6:15 p.m. For more information about Federation and both the Men’s Event and Options, or if you’d like to register for Options, visit www.jewishinsandiego.org or call (858) 571-3444.