“A strong Israeli-American community makes Israel stronger,” Gabi Ashkenazi, the recently retired chief of staff of the Israel Defense Forces (IDF), told the crowd gathered for the third annual Israeli Leadership Council (ILC) Gala on March 20.
In the ILC’s nearly five-year history, the group has established a number of new cultural, educational and Israel advocacy programs in the Los Angeles area and has helped fund others that already exist. It has been likened to an Israeli Federation, and Ashkenazi summed up its guiding principle in fewer than 10 words.
Later in the evening, Ashkenazi would embody the organization’s spirit as well, singing Hebrew songs from the 1950s and ’60s and dancing on stage with Haim Saban and the rest of the ILC board.
But business came first. The night was a chance for the ILC to highlight its projects in video presentations, wall hangings and through the presence of more than a dozen members of ILC-funded troops of Israeli Scouts. Ashkenazi spent the hour before the gala speaking to Israeli-American teens getting ready to enlist in the IDF, and to their nervous, proud parents. Ten of the future soldiers joined Ashkenazi at his table for dinner.
It was also a night to raise some serious coin for these and other ILC programs. ILC board member Shawn Evenhaim exhorted the crowd to give generously, and the fundraising goal for the evening was met in just the first pledge — $400,000 from Saban. By the end of the evening, total contributions crossed the $1 million mark.
Michael Oren, Israel’s ambassador to the United States, delivered the evening’s other keynote speech, and he couldn’t resist pointing out the irony of an American immigrant to Israel speaking in America as a representative of Israel to a group of Israeli Americans. In a speech that raced around the Middle East, from Israel to Iran to Libya, Oren also encouraged Israeli Americans to get involved in local organizations — not only those dedicated to Israel advocacy, but also those aimed at improving and enriching local Jewish life.
To help Israelis imbue their American-born children with an identity that is as Jewish as it is Israeli and American, the ILC has joined forces with Rabbi Ed Feinstein of Valley Beth Shalom in Encino. Feinstein began speaking with ILC leaders earlier this year about working together to better serve the local Israeli-American community. No formal programming has been devised yet, a representative from the ILC said.
“It’s not genetic,” Feinstein said over dessert. “We have to create something that’s never existed before: Israeli-American-Jewish identity.”
By that point of the evening, the dance floor at the front of the ballroom was packed. Disco queen Donna Summer — who is also an FOH (Friend of Haim) — performed earlier in the evening, but her rendition of “Last Dance” was the last English song heard all night.
Outside, Beverly Hills was being pummeled with record-breaking rain, but for the more than 750 people at the Beverly Hilton, the dress code was much more Gucci than Gore-Tex. They weren’t wearing boots, but the crowd was ready for some stomping.
Israeli pop star Einat Sarouf belted out Israeli hits from across the decades while green-shirted Scouts twirled their scarves. The ILC board members — in their shirtsleeves — swayed arm-in-arm as they sang Naomi Shemer’s “Al Kol Eleh.” Sarouf guided Beverly Hills Mayor Jimmy Delshad by his necktie toward her microphone, where they did a quick duet of “Ya Mustafa.”
The other political notables in attendance — including Reps. Brad Sherman and Howard Berman, Los Angeles City Councilman Paul Krekorian and others — managed to avoid being drawn onto the stage.
Not so lucky was ILC Executive Director Shoham Nicolet. “You’re still in reserve, and you can get orders from me,” Ashkenazi said, summoning the junior officer.
Nicolet, who is preparing to move back to Israel this month after 10 years in the United States, stood at attention, uncertain as to how such a major element of the evening’s program had been sneaked in without his knowledge.
In recognition of his service to Israel and the ILC, Ashkenazi presented Nicolet with a large framed photograph of uniformed Israeli soldiers dashing across a rutted, dusty field.
Nicolet has served as ILC’s executive director since the group’s inception and plans to continue in that role from Israel.