Guess Who's Coming to Dinner?
Aish HaTorah's guest list includes many of Hollywood'smost famous and influential players
By Robert Eshman, Associate Editor
Imagine that you follow a rainbow insearch of a pot of gold, only to discover that the rainbow ends inyour own back yard. Now imagine that you can't get into your own backyard.
That's the dilemma Jewish fund-raisers in Los Angeles have longfaced. Here, they share a city with stars, agents, directors,producers, writers and studio heads -- a disproportionate number ofthem Jewish.
And they try to get a critical mass of these people to donate tomainstream Jewish charities such as the Jewish Federation Council --without great success. Other Jewish charities don't fare much better.Except Aish HaTorah. Next Monday, Nov. 17, the religious outreachorganization will honor Kirk Douglas with its King David Award, whoseprevious recipients include Ronald Reagan and Steven Spielberg. Thedinner will be held at the home of Merv and Thea Adelson -- hefounded Lorimar Pictures (remember "The Waltons"?) and is now thechairman of East-West Capital. Dinner co-chairs include JeffreyKatzenberg, Larry King, Michael Ovitz and Lew Wasserman, the kind ofnames instantly familiar to anyone in Los Angeles who can find his orher way to a box office. The Dinner Committee includes Mel Brooks,Barbara and Marvin Davis, Arthur Hiller, Quincy Jones, Nicole Kidmanand Tom Cruise, Sherry Lansing, Jack Lemmon, Leonard Nimoy, GregoryPeck, Neil Simon and Elizabeth Taylor, along with a dozen or so bignames from the industry's business side -- the power behind theglitter. The world of politics is represented by Mario Cuomo, BobDole, Jack Kemp and Natan Sharansky. And Prime Minister BinyaminNetanyahu will attend too -- he'll be presenting the award toDouglas.
Dinner honoree Kirk Douglas.
The dinner costs $10,000 per couple, and organizers are expecting50 to 100 couples. Aish HaTorah will use the $1 million it hopes toraise to subsidize its Jerusalem Fund, whose monies enable AmericanJews to study at Aish's Orthodox yeshivas in the Old City ofJerusalem. Last time we checked, neither Mike Ovitz nor any otherHollywood name on the above list was praying shachrit and layingteffilin. Let's be blunt: These are people who, between their barmitzvah and their funeral, don't get to shul all that much.
So how does Aish get them? The answer to that question goes a longway toward revealing the ties that bind Hollywood and Hollywood Jewsto the Jewish world at large. Sure, the charity-dinner game mightplay by the same rules in any other business or social circle, butHollywood is, of course, always more interesting.
R abbi Nachum Braverman of Aish HaTorah. Photo from"Climbing the Mountain"
Why They Say Yes
Assuming that the captains of Hollywood have plenty to eat intheir own Subzeros, there are only three reasons to say yes to acharity dinner: the honoree, the hosts or the cause. Like the savvyorganization it is, Aish pressed all three buttons to expand its rollcall.
Dinner Committee member Arthur Hiller is the acclaimed director of"The Out of Towners" and "Love Story." He remembers instantly thetime that Kirk Douglas gave him his first motion picture directingjob. The movie was "The Careless Years." The year was 1957. Fortyyears later, when the invitation to Douglas' dinner arrived, Hillerdidn't hesitate. Indeed, Douglas' name attached to an invite elicitsinstant and well-deserved loyalty.
Douglas credits Los Angeles Aish HaTorah Rabbi Nachum Bravermanwith helping to bring him back to Judaism after a near-fatalhelicopter crash in 1991. Since then, the 80-year-old Douglas hasbeen a stalwart supporter of Aish. Soon, the institution will open anexperiential exhibit on Judaism across from the Western Wall, fundedwith a $2 million contribution from the Douglas family.
Who could question the Judaic credentials of a man so sincere inhis faith? And who would doubt the political savvy of the man whobroke the blacklist by hiring Dalton Trumbo to write "Spartacus"?Hiller, a longtime supporter of civil-libertarian and Jewish causessuch as Friends of Sheba Medical Center, had never heard of AishHaTorah. He told The Jewish Journal that he assumed Aish's JerusalemFund had something to do with the Jerusalem Foundation, founded byformer Jerusalem Mayor Teddy Kollek to elicit Diaspora support forthe city.
It doesn't. But no matter. "I did it for Kirk," said Hiller.
A Los Angeles political consultant speeds her eyes down the listof big names and then proclaims, "This list has more to do with MervAdelson than with Kirk Douglas." Adelson's cross-pollinating cloutspans Hollywood, finance and politics. An importantentertainment-industry investor, he is also on the board of directorsof Time Warner Inc. and is an early member of a group of Netanyahu'swealthy American supporters, dubbed the FOBBs -- Friends of Bibi's.That explains the appearance of Netanyahu and Time Warner PresidentGerald M. Levin on the invite.
How did Aish get to Adelson? The former husband of Barbara Waltersis a sometime student of Braverman's too. Though accepting aninvitation from Adelson doesn't guarantee he'll support your cause orcareer move in turn, why tempt fate?
Oh, yes, the cause. Of the 56 people listed as co-chairs andcommittee members, 36 have no affiliation with Aish HaTorah,according to Aish's North American president, Richard Horowitz. Notcoincidentally, those include all but a handful of the Hollywoodnames.
That means that three dozen people agreed to give their moneyand/or their names to a cause they know nothing or next to nothingabout. To those of us for whom a donation of hard-earned cash exactlyequals wholehearted support, this behavior seems weird. To thepolitical consultant, it is par for the course. "Are Hollywood peoplesophisticated about Jewish stuff?" said the consultant. "No. AishHaTorah sounds fine to people."
In fact, Aish is a tad more controversial than "fine."
Even those who praise the organization's outreach effortsacknowledge that individual Aish HaTorah students and teachers can befound at the forefront of the most vitriolic protests against therights of non-Orthodox Jews in Israel and the peace accords signed byYitzhak Rabin. "I know them," said one non-Aish HaTorah OrthodoxAngeleno who asked not to be identified. "These are not the kind ofguys to sit and watch on TV while others do the protesting."
The organization itself, founded in Israel by American-born RabbiNoah Weinberg, does not take stands or support political parties. InLos Angeles, Aish attracts thousands of participants annually topacked Shabbat services and to singles seminars on topics rangingfrom sex to the meaning of life. "We don't want people to intermarrybecause they don't agree with our stand on Judea and Samaria," saidHorowitz, using the biblical term for the West Bank.
The New Israel Fund, which recently launched a campaign againstOrthodox political hegemony in Israel, doesn't have Aish in itssights. "They're clever and upbeat," said NIF's Gil Kukick, "andthey're brilliant at drawing in Jewish searchers. They don't have apolitical agenda."
One former Aish student agreed, but said that the strictinterpretation of Jewish texts left little room for liberalism. "Atthe very least, the yeshivas are helping to create morefundamentalist right-wing voters in Israel," said the man, who didn'twant his name used in print. Aish officials won't deny that someyeshiva students, acting independently, might engage in protest. Theunanswered question is whether an Aish yeshiva education inspirestheir actions.
"Our students receive a standard Orthodox education," said onelongtime Aish HaTorah lay leader, who spoke on condition ofanonymity. "Actually, there's very little in the Torah that'spolitical."
That statement would be news to the Jews in Israel, whereOrthodoxy's biblical interpretations are at the heart of issuesdividing Jews, from conversion to the peace process. But RabbiBraverman -- a gentle and engaging man -- becomes steely cold whenthe word "fundamentalist" is attached to Aish yeshiva studies. "Howdo you define fundamentalist?" he said. "We're Orthodox. We have abigger agenda than political issues. Our agenda is creating arenaissance in Jewish life."
In any case, parsing such questions takes time and energy, and fewHollywood names choose to invest either over deciding whether to sayyes or no to the dozens of dinner invites that cross their desks.Some in the industry, such as Richard Dreyfuss, are active inpolitics and, additionally, retain consultants to guide suchdecisions. (The actor declined the Aish invitation.)
In some hard cases, a kind of ethical prioritizing takes effect.Do you give money to a cause you disapprove of in order to honor afriend? For Hiller, the answer is no. "If the charges [against anorganization] are proven to me," he said, "I won't do it."
But most see an Aish HaTorah invitation as a way to support not acause or a faction of Jewish life but Judaism in general.
Chabad, which raises about $4 million annually through itsstar-studded telethon, benefits from the same notion that, somehow,supporting Orthodox institutions is supporting the real legacy oflong-lost bubbes and zaydes.
"Hollywood figures don't understand the theology of Judaism," saidthe Aish lay leader, "but they understand the Orthodox are successfuland growing, and the Conservative and Reform movements are dead-banglosers. They have the stench of failure. The Orthodox stand forsomething, and they've stood for something for 3,300 years.
"Fifteen years ago, the Conservative movement said it wouldn'tordain women rabbis. Then it did. In 10 years, you can at least besure there won't be a single Orthodox synagogue with a homosexualrabbi."
Whether Aish's Hollywood supporters subscribe to that statement ornot, they do share a general sense of wanting to do something forJewish life.
"I see [Aish HaTorah] as a Jehovah's Witness for Judaism," saidFred Spector, who represents A-list actors at Creative ArtistsAgency. "They try to bring people back into the fold."
Spector's wife, Pamela Robinson, took some Torah classes fromBraverman, and though Spector himself has never been involved, hefound the group possessed one other all-important attribute in thistown: "They're aggressive and hard to say no to," he said.
So Spector signed on (although the Aish HaTorah invitation, whichmisspells several Hollywood names, lists the agent as "Senator ArlenSpector"). And Hiller signed on. And Aish HaTorah built itself quitea Dinner Committee. But, this being Hollywood, there is one thing thestar-struck should know before plunking down $10,000 to mingle withall these Big Names. Many won't be there, and many didn't pay. As iscommon at fund-raising dinners of any sort, glamorous names are usedto draw in paying civilians and press attention. Hiller knew hecouldn't attend the minute he agreed to be on the list. Why? He'll bein Fort Lauderdale at another fund-raising dinner, held to honor him.