Paparazzi cameras flashed nonstop on Tuesday evening, May 5, at the entrance to the Beverly Wilshire Hotel as the Simon Wiesenthal Center prepared to honor Will Smith at its annual gala dinner. In the ballroom, densely packed with enough tables to seat 1,000 guests, Jeffrey Katzenberg traded in the title of movie mogul to play emcee, while his friends — Universal Studios COO Ron Meyer, Sony Pictures Entertainment (SPE) chair and CEO Michael Lynton and SPE co-chair Amy Pascal — looked on from their seats. Head-turning, Oscar-winning actress Charlize Theron also attended to introduce her “Hancock” and “Bagger Vance” co-star, Smith, one of the night’s honorees.
Each year the SWC dinner attracts a who’s who of Los Angeles’ most powerful and influential, Jews and non-Jews, from the highest corners of Hollywood to the deepest pockets in Beverly Hills. It all adds up to a $1.6 million night, during which the Wiesenthal Center leaders remind the audience that hatred and bigotry, which sparked the Holocaust, exists still in the world.
Katzenberg thanked the audience for their extra-generous gifts in light of the economy, and then introduced singer Josiah Bell, who sang two ballads (“How adorable is this guy?” Katzenberg gushed). He then went on to heap praise on Wiesenthal Center founder Rabbi Marvin Hier, whom, apparently, he doesn’t call “rabbi.”
“What gives this place life and makes it a genuine force of nature is a man,” Katzenberg said. “Marvin, Marvin, Marvin — where would we be without Marvin?”
Hier thanked the Hollywood chieftains for sponsoring the dinner and then turned his attention to Smith, whom he thanked for thrilling a group of inner-city schoolchildren with a tour of the Museum of Tolerance. Hier said Smith was such a marvelous tour guide he suggested they swap careers: “You go to the museum, and I’ll go to the studio — Hollywood could use someone who speaks Yiddish.”
Then Hier introduced the heartrending portion of the evening, presenting Medals of Valor to three heroes: Karnit Goldwasser, wife of murdered Israeli soldier Ehud Goldwasser, for her worldwide efforts in speaking out against terror; Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger, who safely landed a US Airways plane on the Hudson River, saving 155 passengers; and Marion Pritchard, a World War II hero who joined the Dutch resistance and stopped at nothing, even killing a Nazi, to save 150 Jewish children from certain death.
After hearing those stories, even the star honoree was humbled. He told a story about working with Gene Hackman on the set of “Enemy of the State.”
“Every morning I’d say, ‘Good morning Mr. Hackman.’ And he’d say, ‘Good morning Will, how ya doin?’ And I’d say, ‘I’m really happy to be here.’ And he’d say, ‘No Will, you’re lucky to be here.’ And that’s sorta how I feel tonight,” Smith began.
Smith said he was nervous when Hier called him on his “celly” about the award. “I really felt like if I’m gonna be honored, I probably need to do something to earn it,” he said, and then introduced his Shine Your Light project, which he started “like the second I hung up with Rabbi Hier.”
Using communication technology, Smith has dialogues with children around the world about tolerance. “I realized major intolerant tragedies are almost identical in blueprint to what children are going through on playgrounds. And tonight, I’m making a commitment, in the presence of my family and friends and work colleagues; I’m dedicating my life to making this world a better place.”
Maccabiah Team Rallies at House Party
“This will be the greatest PR for the Jewish people since Mount Sinai,” asserted Rabbi Chaim Mentz of Chabad of Bel Air, and his was one of the more measured pronouncements when some 50 boosters of the upcoming 18th Maccabiah Games in Israel met at a stately Beverly Hills home last week.
Those assembled, including a large contingent of 20-somethings, sipped, supped and then applauded a series of upbeat announcements and the people behind the effort, such as:
Real estate developer Steve Soboroff, the catalyst for the drive to put the Maccabiah on the world map and make it profitable to boot, reported that his Committee of 18 had raised $1.5 million so far. Most of the money will go toward sending athletes from smaller or poorer Jewish communities around the world to the games.
Michael Broukhim, 24, and Adam Katz, 23, two recent Harvard grads and founders of Totspot.com and Opera New Media, will use their media savvy in Facebooking, Tweeting, Flickring and Web site design to bring the “Jewish Olympics” to the Internet generation. Mitch Gaylord, who won a gold medal at the 1984 Olympics as the first American gymnast to score a perfect 10, will serve as anchor and commentator for the JLTV transmissions. “This is bigger than we know; it’s bigger than just the sports,” Gaylord said.
Ari Friedland, joined by Candice Illoulian, reported on the activities of their youth group, each of whose 20 members has pledged to raise $5,000 for the Maccabiah. They recently hosted a party for some 350 young professionals, which raised $10,000, and similar parties are now slated for New York and Miami.
Eyal Tiberger, the Maccabiah World Union’s director-general, flew in from Israel for an update report. More than 10,000 athletes from 65 countries, who will compete in 35 different sports, are expected, along with 20,000 foreign spectators.
Teams from 25 countries will need financial help to make it to the games, a major reason for the fundraising efforts of the Los Angeles group.
Tiberger promised a first-class reception for the Angeleno VIPs, including a gala concert conducted by Zubin Mehta and a special event honoring local Maccabiah leader and former soccer star Eli Marmur.
He also vowed that the opening ceremony in the Ramat Gan stadium will be so eye-popping as to rival the show put on at the Beijing Olympics.
The governments of Germany, Russia and to some extent France, are picking up the tab for their countries’ Maccabiah teams.
“Usually the competition for top spot is between the Israeli team, entering 2,500 athletes, and the nearly 1,000-strong U.S. team,” Tiberger said, “but this year Russia will also be a contender.”
Some 35 percent to 40 percent of the athletes will be women and, as usual, soccer will be the most popular attraction, with 70 men’s and women’s teams entered. Overall, the competitions will be divided into junior, open, master and paralympics categories.
Close to 70 percent of the competitors have never visited Israel before, Soboroff said, and as important as the events themselves will be the new connections created between Diaspora Jews and Israelis.
For more information and to offer support, contact Steve Soboroff at (310) 448-4601, or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.
— Tom Tugend, Contributing Editor
Clippers to Play Benefit With Maccabi Electra Tel Aviv
On April 29, Yom HaAtzmaut, the L.A. Clippers announced a pre-season exhibition game next Oct. 20 with Maccabi Electra Tel Aviv, Israel’s most successful basketball team. The proceeds of the game at Staples Center will benefit the orphanage Migdal Ohr, located in northern Israel. Participating in the announcement are, from left, Andy Roeser, president of the L.A. Clippers; Mike Dunleavy, Clippers’ general manager and head coach; Jacob Dayan, consul general of Israel; and Robert Katz, executive vice president of American Friends of Migdal Ohr.
— Jason Lipeles, Contributing Writer