The Waldorf ballroom - all three of its gilded tiers - was packed this past Tuesday night, as one of New York’s more visible and popular Jewish charities, Friends of the Israel Defense Forces, celebrated its annual gala dinner.
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After the recent IDF seizure of an Iranian missile shipment bound for Gaza, the evening morale was high, and so was the socialite buzz. A group of young soldiers in uniform milled about the ballroom, caught up in loud throngs of 1,400 New Yorkers and friends; the stars of the night were clearly two young Israeli navy commandos who had been present on the navy ship in Port Sudan, whisked off a boat, and then into a candlelit dinner to smile and shake hands with Americans.
With a robust young leadership presence - that crucial fundraising weapon which all Jewish non-profits only dream of - the evening featured keynote speaker IDF Chief of Staff Benny Gantz. “This is the third time they tried to get him to come,” someone whispers during the program. “It’s a wonder he didn’t have to cancel this time around.”
Gantz thanked international donors for their support of IDF educational, social and cultural programs, and in a measured voice, addressed the importance of Diaspora Jewry’s continued support for Israel. “The struggle for the security of Israel demands total devotion,” he said. “In our ever-changing reality, there are two factors which provide us with stability: The State of Israel...and the United States, our ally.”
Gantz also addressed the interception of the Iranian arms vessel: “In the middle of the night, halfway across the world, we exposed the fangs behind the Iranian smiles,” he said. “We are aware of the changes in our enemies' behavior...We see them. We hear them. We recognize them, and most importantly of all – we act with boldness to stop them.”
After Gantz’s speech, a media presentation followed, featuring several words from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Israel’s “eternal capital” of Jerusalem, and a live video broadcasting from an Air Force basis. The evening’s emcee, conservative talk show host Monica Crowley, interviewed a soldier via video: “Tell us, how does the Israeli Air Force maintain its advantage constantly?"
The soldier smiled and then said, “If I tell you, Monica, I would have to kill you," and the whole ballroom erupted in laughter; Crowley then made the requisite joke about the charms of the Israeli soldier.
But program execution here was memorable - living here in New York brings one to many a tedious fundraising dinner, in many a midtown hotel or pier, but the FIDF’s program was surprisingly interesting. When live video hookups show Israeli Air Force Major General Amir Eshel demonstrating digitally simulated operations, alongside the token lone soldier, the paramedic on the Syrian border, and then the IDF widow with the trembling voice - there’s no doubt that a standing ovation will soon follow, along with a moment of reverent silence and open checkbooks, with evening proceeds amounting to $20 million.
As white-haired Jews in drawling Brooklyn accents announced various numbers, followed by applause, the group of young soldiers looked on, smiling and slightly dazed.
Later, when the guests finished their desserts and stepped out onto a windy Park Avenue, Gantz rushed back to the airport — escalating violence on the Gazan border called him home to duty.