President Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden
President Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden made surprise back-to-back appearances Sunday, Oct. 18 at “An Evening of Unity,” the annual fundraiser event for Yeshiva Beth Yehudah in Oak Park. (Yeshiva Beth Yehudah)

The virtual fundraiser for the Oak Park yeshiva also featured notable Michigan Democrats, prompting some controversy.

President Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden made surprise back-to-back appearances Sunday, Oct. 18 at “An Evening of Unity,” the annual fundraiser event for Yeshiva Beth Yehudah in Oak Park.

The two Presidential nominees were the highest-profile guests at the star-studded event, held virtually this year due to the coronavirus pandemic. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who had been previously announced as the featured guest, did not appear.

A brief message during the event said Netanyahu’s absence was “due to unforeseen and unfortunate circumstances.” Rabbi Shragie Myers, the executive director of the Yeshiva, could not be reached for comment.

In brief recorded speeches, Trump and Biden both delivered greetings to the school. Trump, who was under the impression Netanyahu was still scheduled to appear, thanked the PM for his friendship and support, and listed his administration’s accomplishments in Israel, including pulling out of the Iran nuclear deal, opening the U.S. Embassy in Jerusalem and the Abraham Accords.

“I wish you a safe and successful evening of unity all in support of our children and their education,” Trump said.

Biden, who had been a featured guest at the dinner in 2011, noted how different the current situation was.

“A lot has changed since we were last together, but we remain united in our appreciation for this extraordinary institution and the students it serves,” he said in his video. Biden also mentioned the work that needs to be done to seek out a common purpose in treating each other with respect and stopping the rise of antisemitism.

The Yeshiva Dinner historically pays tribute to the 106-year-old educational institution, gathering local and national luminaries to address Jewish Detroit. The gala dinner is typically attended by thousands of guests and local, national and international political, civic and philanthropic leaders. Past guests have included President George W. Bush, First Lady Laura Bush, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Presidential nominee John McCain, Secretary of State John Kerry, and more.

Additional guests this year included Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer; Senators Debbie Stabenow and Gary Peters; Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan; the Reverend Dr. Wendell Anthony, President of the NAACP Detroit; JPMorgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon; and Gary Torgow, chairman of TCF Bank and president of YBY.

This year’s dinner was free to “attend,” but had attracted controversy for advertising Netanyahu as the guest while promoting “An Evening of Unity” as its theme.

The Arab-American News in Dearborn slammed Democratic and NAACP leaders in an editorial on Friday for appearing with Israeli PM Netanyahu, whom they called “a fascist criminal.”

“We are outraged that any community organization would honor Netanyahu, whose long history of anti-Arab, anti-Palestinian and anti-Muslim racism is clear and well documented,” the unsigned editorial said. “There is nothing about him that screams ‘unity.’”

IfNotNow Detroit, the local chapter of the Jewish anti-occupation advocacy movement, also criticized Democratic leaders for appearing at the event.

Whitmer, sharing the virtual stage with Trump just one day after the president had mocked the kidnapping plot against the governor at a campaign rally in Muskegon, praised YBY for its kosher meals program.

“I’m grateful that you’ve helped provide hundreds of thousands of meals during the COVID-19 pandemic for kids in your area,” Whitmer said. “Your gathering in celebration of unity only serves to strengthen the message that you’ve lived out for years, that we are united by our common values of faith, unity and community, and that together, we’re strong enough to withstand any adversity.”

Yeshiva Beth Yehudah is the largest Jewish school system in Michigan, providing a Torah-based education to more than 1,000 students from pre-K through Grade 12. The school has offered in-person classes during the pandemic.

Yousef Al Otaiba, the United Arab Emirates Ambassador to the U.S., made an appearance just weeks after the signing of the Abraham Accords, reflecting on what the peace treaty means.

“In the short term, two countries who weren’t talking to each other are now talking to each other,” he said. “In the long term, young Emirates and young Israelis are going to get to know and learn about each other. Students in your school are going to be able to go talk to Israelis and Emirates either in Israel or the UAE… I know Emiratis are very excited to learn about Israel and get to visit, and I hope Israelis are equally as excited about getting to know us.”

Otaiba also mentioned the business, research, educational and technological opportunities that are possible now that Israel and the UAE have this partnership.

Steve Steinour, President, Chairman & CEO of Huntington Bank, received the Outstanding Leadership Award at the virtual event.

The event ended with an announcement, saying they will see their attendees for next year’s annual YBY dinner, in person, on October 24, 2021.

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