Jokes, Hugs and a Whole Lotta Love in Farewell NY Gala for Foxman

Obama, Bush, Rice and Power were among those greeting the outgoing ADL director, whose departure marks the end of an era.

David Karp

And then there was the time Samantha Power’s young boy Declan played around with her Blackberry and caused it to ring Abe Foxman no matter what key she pressed. One early morning she put the phone in her back pocket and got in her car, when suddenly she heard Foxman’s voice calling out from behind. “Even my butt was calling Foxman,” she said, savoring the word. “He said he loved getting my calls, but he was in California: my butt was calling him at 4 am.”

The lighthearted tribute by America’s Ambassador to the UN was one of the livelier presentations in a very long, star-studded lineup of tributes to Foxman, who is retiring this summer after 50 years at the Anti-Defamation League, 28 of them as its national director.  Very few American Jewish leaders, if any, have garnered as much attention, respect, love and sometimes criticism as Foxman. Some of these – minus the critics – were on proud display at a gala dinner held at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel in Manhattan on Wednesday in which top Jewish, New York and Washington figures took part.

They extolled Foxman’s extraordinary life story, from being hidden by his Catholic nanny in Vilnius during the Holocaust to his hobnobbing with kings and presidents as head of the ADL. The Catholic Archbishop of New York, Timothy Cardinal Dolan, said he was jealous of Foxman, “because he has much better access to the Pope than I have.”

And the accolades for Foxman kept relentlessly coming. Television’s Katie Couric, who hosted the evening, dubbed him “the defender of the Jewish people” and “an American idol.” Henry Kissinger, in a videotaped message, said that Foxman was “a conscience for our time.”  Former NBA Commissioner David Stern said that Foxman was “the first responder of anti-discrimination in the world.” French Ambassador to the UN Francoise Delattre called Foxman “a national treasure” and then corrected himself to “an international treasure,” and National Security Adviser Susan Rice noted one of Foxman’s most distinctive features: “He’s a good hugger.”

Rice said she could count on Foxman to “tell it to me straight, even when he knows I won’t like what he says.” She praised their collaboration during her time as Ambassador at the UN “when Foxman had my back” and called her “a gladiator.” She praised Foxman for rushing to her defense when Rabbi Shmuley Boteach published a full-page ad blasting her attitude towards Iran and claiming that she was “turning a blind eye to genocide.”

Rice’s boss, President Barack Obama as well as his predecessor, George W. Bush, also weighed in with video greetings, the latter receiving more enthusiastic applause than the former. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu made do with a letter, and some members of the audience were perplexed by the absence of an official Israeli speaker.

Not that the evening lacked in other prominent greeters: There was Elie Wiesel, New York Police Commissioner William Bratton, Park East Rabbi Arthur Schneier, Haaretz columnist and author Ari Shavit, fashion queen Diane von Furstenberg and many others. Not everyone was happy with the makeup of the speaker’s list, however: Mort Klein, President of the rightist Zionist Organization of America, said that he was surprised that “most of the speakers, with the exception of Fox’s Roger Ailes,” were from the left.

New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman recounted his first meeting with Foxman at a Jewish day camp in Webster, Wisconsin, when Friedman was a nine year old camper and Foxman a 22-year-old counselor. "Now young Abe and little Tom forged a deep bond over those many years," Friedman said.  "When young Tom became older Tom with a column, he occasionally gave older Abe tsouris. Tsouris is a Latin word that means 'loving advice that was not invited or appreciated.'"

“If you wanted to know what was going on in the Jewish community, you went to Abe Foxman,” said his long time deputy, Kenneth Jacobson, in a film shown before Foxman himself got on the podium for a typically teary appreciation and last farewell. He will be replaced next month by Jonathan Greenblatt, a social entrepreneur who has served in the Obama White House. But even if Greenblatt is the perfect candidate, the consensus at the Waldorf on Wednesday was that filling Foxman’s big shoes would be a mission impossible. He represents an era in Jewish communal life that, no one seemed to doubt, is rapidly coming to an end.