The Keren Hayesod Annual World Conference that took place in Jerusalem this week had many high points but was also tinged with sadness. The conference brings together people from around the globe who are dedicated to making the world a better place for others less fortunate than themselves.
They give generously not only of their money, but of their time and efforts. This commitment is recognized by annually honoring these outstanding philanthropic leaders.
A short video related to each of the recipients is screened, which often includes endorsements from other prominent personalities.
Sometimes the awards are given to individuals, and sometimes to married couples who individually and together work for Keren Hayesod-United Israel Appeal. This year’s honorees included Barry and Honey Sherman of Toronto, Canada, whose cruel murder last December sent shock waves through the Toronto Jewish community and throughout the entire Jewish world, where they had many friends and colleagues. Eight thousand people including Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne and Toronto Mayor John Tory attended their funeral, said United Israel Appeal honorary president Julia Koschitzky.
Three months before their deaths, the Shermans were informed that they had been chosen to receive the award. Two of their daughters came to Jerusalem on behalf of their siblings to accept the award and said tearfully that they were in the process of learning all their parents had done and would follow their example. The other Yakir honorees were Alison Berk Katzeff from South Africa, who said she was not accepting the award on her own behalf but on behalf of all those on whose shoulders she had stood; Julian Black of Melbourne, Australia, who said when you volunteer, you don’t expect a reward, but you’re very pleased when you get one; Avi Lugasy, a native Israeli living in Geneva, where his father was the first Keren Hayesod emissary to French-speaking Switzerland; Diana Varzan de Laufer, a second-generation Keren Hayesod devotee; Anna Hsiao Fen Shen, a Taiwanese architect, designer, teacher and translator, who believes in the God of Israel and encourages fellow Taiwanese to visit the Jewish state; and Tashkent-born Lev Leviev, who – although he is an Israeli citizen with many philanthropic and business interests in this country (not to mention, Russia, Angola, USA, England and more) – currently lives in London, but is in and out of Israel like a yo-yo. In a short video about Leviev, who is also president of the Federation of Jewish Communities of CIS, Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau and former president Shimon Peres each credited him with having a big stake in ensuring Jewish continuity. “He saved Jewish souls,” said Lau. “Forty thousand children remained Jewish because of Leviev,” said Peres.
Even more prestigious than the Yakir Award is Keren Hayesod’s Isaiah Award, the highest of the organization’s accolades, given in the name of the Jewish people and the people of Israel. It is presented to leaders who have shown great commitment to the Jewish concepts of tikkun olam (healing the world) and tzedaka (charity), or more accurately, creating justice through philanthropy and giving of oneself to help disadvantaged populations improve their lives. Former recipients include Bill Clinton, Yitzhak Rabin, Sharon Stone, George W. Bush, and David Cameron, among others.
A name added to the list this week was that of Benjamin Netanyahu who was honored for his outstanding leadership and commitment to the security and well-being of the people of Israel.
In thanking Keren Hayesod and praising the work that it has done for decades, Netanyahu did not roll into his usual spiel about Iran. That was already done earlier in the evening by Housing and Construction Minister Yoav Galant, who delivered a thorough, but concise, military- like briefing on Israel’s security situation. The borders have been relatively quiet, he said, “But Iran’s infiltration into the Golan Heights is alarming” and aimed at creating deeper penetration on the northern border. The terrorism effort on the northern border is second only to Iran’s effort to create military nuclear capability, said Galant, who also warned against the growing divisions in Israeli society. “We can deal with security only when we are united. We are losing strength because we are divided,” he said. As for relations with the Jewish Diaspora, Galant said: “It is our duty to see that every Jew sees the State of Israel as his or her homeland regardless of what he or she currently calls home.”
Netanyahu and his wife, Sara, stayed true to form by arriving 15 minutes late and were immediately swamped by admirers and well-wishers. After pledging to lay off the hair dye (Netanyahu was again over-tinted), but he was in a great mood hearing only compliments and no criticism.
The Isaiah Award was presented to him by outgoing Keren Hayesod world chairman Eliezer (Modi) Sandberg and chairman of the Keren Hayesod World board of trustees David Koschitzky in the presence of former recipients Dr.
Alexander Machkevitch and Mikhael Mirilashvili, each of whom has left his imprint on the Euro-Asian Jewish Congress Netanyahu lauded Sandberg for all that he has done for Israel and the Jewish people, and spoke in glowing terms of Israel’s strength not only militarily and economically, but in all fields.
“We live in m o m e n t o u s times. The founders of modern Zionism did not say that the attacks on the Jewish people would cease once we establish a Jewish state.
They said that we could defend ourselves against those attacks. And that’s exactly what the State of Israel has done. It’s restored the capacity of the Jewish people to defend ourselves, by ourselves, against any threat. And we are as powerful as we’ve never been before. We’re economically successful as we’ve never been before, and we take our economic power and our military might and we weld them together to have unprecedented diplomatic flourishing of Israel’s relations around the world.”
In his meetings with world leaders, said Netanyahu, he is frequently asked to reveal the secret of Israel’s success. No one believes that it’s a country of less than nine million people. They tell him that it must be a hundred million.
Speaking with pride of Israel’s unique combination of tradition and innovation that makes the country “so powerful,” Netanyahu said: “We have a brain, we have a heart, we have a country, we have a state, we have an army, we have a future.”
For the immensely popular Sandberg, this was his swan song in office. Sandberg, who is closely associated with Netanyahu, was arrested in September last year in connection with the German submarines investigation, and unlike Netanyahu, decided to resign rather than taint the organization which he headed for just over seven years.
The work of Keren Hayesod is not yet done, he said. “We all know that we are working for something bigger than us,” he noted, adding that whenever the government of Israel called on Hayesod to take a mission upon itself, “We knew how to do it.”
He also emphasized the importance of Jerusalem both literally and metaphorically, not only to Israel but to the Jewish world. “We have to keep the gates of Jerusalem open,” he declared, “because as long as the gates of Jerusalem remain open, the gates of Auschwitz will remain closed.”
■ IT’S HIGH time that judging people in accordance with a stereotyped image is recognized as a form of racism. Among the beneficiaries of earmarked assistance by Keren Hayesod leaders is Galia Samin, who received an education in advanced technology, was an officer in an elite unit of the IDF and today, teaches technology. She was invited to the Keren Hayesod Yakir dinner in order to publicly thank Alison Berk Katzeff, and like everyone else had to go through a security procedure, which with her army background, she understands very well. But what she didn’t understand was the question asked by a security guard who wanted to know whether she was one of the waitresses. Israeli-born Samin is of Ethiopian background, a factor that is obvious in her complexion and facial features, but she was angry that it was automatically assumed that she was there to do a menial task, and that no consideration was given to the fact that she has a good brain.
■ SOME TIME in the distant future, a document that was hand-delivered on Tuesday to President Reuven Rivlin will be of great historic value. Styled in the format of the Declaration of the Establishment of the State of Israel of May 14, 1948, it is an official “Declaration of the Jewish Diaspora’s Commitment to the State of Israel on the Occasion of the 70th Anniversary of the Establishment of the State of Israel,” and has been signed by leaders of 83 Jewish communities world-wide and by members of the World Jewish Congress steering committee. The WJC initiated and adopted the declaration on behalf of its affiliated communities on six continents, as a manifesto of Diaspora Jewry’s “immense pride and admiration for Israel’s remarkable and inspiring achievements over the course of the past seven decades” and as a pledge of its “steadfast and unwavering support for Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people and its centrality to the Jewish people.”
WJC President Ronald S. Lauder said of the declaration, “This manifesto is a declaration of our promise to continue to defend and promote the Jewish state, and to stand by and assist in ensuring its bright and secure future.”
The document was delivered by a WJC delegation headed by WJC CEO Robert Singer and representatives of the WJC’s flagship program, the WJC-Jewish Diplomatic Corps – the future leaders of Jewish communities worldwide.
In accepting the declaration, Rivlin said, “At the root of our relationship as the Jewish people there is one simple, absolute understanding that must prevail: Our mutual responsibility for one another; our commitment to the security, liberty, and welfare of every member of our people. This commitment must be stronger than any disagreement.”