A Salute To Soldiers
Michiganders take part in national Friends of the IDF gala that raised $26 million.
As Israeli soldiers worked to keep cities within striking distance of Gaza safe from the rocket barrages that had escalated early this month, more than 1,300 supporters of the Friends of the Israel Defense Forces (FIDF) gathered for the nonprofit’s largest single fundraiser of the year.
Within hours, $26 million had been raised at the annual black-tie FIDF National New York gala dinner at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel on March 13.
This year’s sold-out event benefits the organization started in 1981 by a group of Holocaust survivors to provide for the well-being of the men and women who serve in the IDF as well as the families of fallen soldiers.
At least 11 Metro Detroit FIDF supporters helped to fill the hotel’s grand ballroom to capacity. Among them were five who had served in the IDF: Michigan FIDF Vice President Josh Berkovitz and Avi Yazdi, both of West Bloomfield, and FIDF Michigan Region Executive Director Tamir Oppenheim, his wife and office manager Elian Oppenheim and executive assistant Keren Toby.
In addition, Chairman emeritus and board member Ann Newman of Bloomfield Hills fought in the 1948 War for Independence; board member Aliza Nivy of Bloomfield Township served as a registered nurse during the 1948 war.
Others Detroiters included Michigan FIDF board member Eugene Sherizen of Huntington Woods, Marilyn Karbal of Bloomfield Hills and the Rev. Tim and Kay Munger, local representatives of the New Jersey-based Friends of Israel Gospel Ministry, an evangelical Christian group.
“No question I felt motivated and re-energized in my commitment to the organization back in Michigan after the gala,” said Sherizen, a first-time attendee.
“It is important to take part in a big national gala dinner to be witness to the strength of the organization and its strong support for the soldiers, and then to come back home and continue the amazing job the Michigan community does for the soldiers,” Oppenheim said.
Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. (Res.) Benny Gantz was to have been the keynote speaker but remained in Israel because of the rocket escalation from Gaza. He spoke live via satellite from a base protecting Ashdod with the Iron Dome anti-missile system, which the IDF says has intercepted nearly 90 percent of its targets.
“The terrorists know now that the rockets they are firing at us are being intercepted by the Iron Dome, and they also know what will happen in the future if they continue to pursue terrorism,” he said. “Active defense systems represent a historic and important shift in military strategy.”
Gantz thanked the attendees for their partnership with the IDF soldiers, saying, “This is very important for us to know that we are not alone.”
Appearing with Gantz in the pre-dawn darkness in Israel was Sgt. Doron Gertner, an Iron Dome intercept specialist.
“When you are in the box, you have to make quick decisions and you know what lies in the balance,” Gertner said. “You have to know what kind of rocket [is fired] to choose the interceptors. The right choice and you see who you save.
“Out of 200 rockets, I personally intercepted four,” he said to great applause. “What I love most about this unit is that you can see results instantaneously. It’s very rewarding. I’m so proud to serve in this unit.”
In a video message, freed IDF soldier Gilad Shalit thanked the audience for prayers and support during the five years he was held captive in Gaza by Hamas.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu also appeared in a video message. “The IDF is the basis for our existence and is the guarantee for our future,” he said. “Today, now that we have a country and we have a strong army, we have the capability to stand up against attacks on the Jewish nation.”
Twenty-nine IDF soldiers talked one-to-one with supporters during the reception and were dispersed among the tables at dinner, bringing an added level of commitment to the cause among supporters.
In a tearful speech, bereaved mother Mir Hadassi spoke of her son, Yonatan Hadassi, killed in 2006 at the onset of the Second Lebanon War while serving in Maglan, an IDF covert operations unit.
A live satellite feed introduced a Maglan unit training in Lachish, Israel, showing their cramped quarters and an artificial hillside that provided cover for their operations.
An IDF soldier named Dave from Long Island did the talking, until he was surprised to be greeted by his parents in the New York audience. His weeping mother sent her love, shared her pride in his work and told him to return safely.
Adding Their Voices
Similar video feeds, stories and heart-warming connections are a hallmark of Michigan’s annual FIDF dinner as well and help in getting supporters to raise the ante on their pledges.
At the New York dinner, everything was on a much larger scale. Unlike in Detroit and most other cities, a majority of the pledges were made in tableside announcements around the ballroom.
Pledging lasted more than 90 minutes and included every amount, from $180 from a bar mitzvah boy to $9.25 million from the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews in Jerusalem.
“This dinner and this cause have become the central event of Jewish life in North America,” Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein, founder of the Fellowship, said as he announced the evening’s largest pledge.
Though lengthy, the pledging was an emotional testament to the support for Israel’s soldiers. A repeated theme was that the IDF was defending not only the Jewish homeland, but also Jews worldwide.
In Detroit, the annual Michigan Region FIDF dinner last November raised $1.6 million. The new goal is $2 million. Local supporters number 2,000 households.
Among Detroiters, favorite programs to support include Impact!, which provides grants for four-year scholarships to Israeli ex-combat soldiers who lack funds to attend college or advanced educational schools (the local group has sponsored 171 scholarships), and Dignity, which provides soldiers and their families with critical aid to help them through difficult economic times.
Moved by a personal connection he made at the Detroit FIDF dinner last year, Sheldon Yellen of Bloomfield Hills flew to New York just to see IDF Capt. Seva, who lost the use of his legs after he took a bullet while saving one of his soldiers during a mission in Gaza.
In Detroit, Yellen spent three hours at a restaurant talking with this IDF hero. He says they left as brothers.
Seva was so touched by Yellen that he took the elite sniper’s medallion off his uniform and gave it to him.
“He told me he dreamed his whole life of getting this pin, and he insisted I take it,” said Yellen, who took the pin after much arguing.
The two corresponded and swore they would meet again.
Yellen jetted into New York for a brief meeting before the dinner. He gave Seva a letter telling him what it meant to him to be in the presence of such a hero, then gave the pin back.
When Seva tried to give it back, Yellen told him it belonged to him, then turned and left. He was in Cincinnati for business by the time the IDF dinner started.
Ann Newman, a founder of the Michigan Region FIDF group, received special recognition and an award of appreciation for her years of service and support to the organization at the national FIDF board meeting March 14.
Newman, a Metro Detroit philanthropist and president/owner of the Frank W. Kerr Co., a wholesale drug distributor in Novi, was introduced by national FIDF director Maj. Gen (Res.) Jerry Gershon as a “good friend of the State of Israel and our soldiers.”
“Ann is a tremendous supporter of Israel and other Zionist causes,” he said before explaining that Newman was in the Irgun and Lechi as a combat soldier in the 1948 War for Independence. “I would say she is a woman of valor.”
“Thanks for the wonderful honor,” Newman said at the meeting. “There is no question that Israel is my life and our work. I am physically here, but spiritually I am in Israel. I was a soldier in 1948. I love the soldiers.
“There is a long history of why Israel will never be forsaken,” she said to the FIDF board members. “Without Israel, we are no one.”
Written by Story Development Editor Keri Guten Cohen, who attended the gala dinner as a guest of the Michigan Region FIDF.