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Jewish Journal

Glitz for Gelt

Vodka Latka turns young Hollywood Jews on to the joys of fundraising.

by Marc Ballon

November 28, 2002 | 7:00 pm

Julie Hermelin wanted nothing more than to throw a great Chanukah party that would rival her friends' Christmas bashes.

She succeeded beyond her wildest dreams.

At that long-ago soiree, 60 friends crowded into Hermelin's home. They spun dreidels, feasted on latkes and imbibed vodka until the wee hours of the morning. The following year, in 1997, 100 friends showed up. In 1998, 300 folks dropped by, including a group of naked, drunken revelers who soaked in her hot tub until 3 a.m.

Although she couldn't have known it at the time, Hermelin, a 35-year-old television director and former musical video director, had planted the seeds for Vodka Latka, which has since become one of the hippest parties this side of Hollywood for Jews in the entertainment industry. The annual bash has helped its sponsor, The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, attract hundreds of new young supporters and, in the process, partly shed its image as a stodgy, distant bureaucracy.

Back in 1998, though, the only thing Hermelin knew was that she wanted to get out of the business of throwing big, homegrown holiday bashes, especially after partygoers trashed her Los Feliz home at her last one.

But Hermelin's Chanukah party soiree created buzz and raised more than $1,000 for Mazon, The Jewish Response to Hunger, a nonprofit group. Her ability to fuse fun with tzedekah caught the eye of her cousins Matthew and Aaron Weinberg, co-chairs of The Federation's entertainment steering committee.

Why not, they asked, join forces with The Federation to put on an event that would both tap her talent as a world-class party planner and further Jewish causes?

Why not? she thought.

Vodka Latka was born.

"I find a lot of joy in my Jewishness and wanted to be able to share that with other people," said Hermelin, now one of four co-chairs for the annual celebration. "I wanted to crack that image that somehow being involved in a Jewish organization was nerdy or queer; that it was something for your parents or grandparents but not for you."

On Dec. 4, an estimated crowd of up to 1,500 of Tinseltown's young and beautiful is expected to spend more than $200 apiece to down vodka, caviar-topped latkes and other munchables at The Federation's fourth annual Vodka Latka at the Hollywood Palladium.

The crowd will be entertained by the band Pink Martini, watch a fashion show put on by Sharon Segal of Fred Segal in Santa Monica and dance, dance, dance. Participants will also have the chance to hang with the likes of such celebrities as Jonathan Silverman, Christina Applegate and Josh Malina (see story page 39), who will saunter across the red carpet as they arrive at the Palladium.

The event, which has come a long way since The Federation's first Vodka Latka back in 1999 attracted just 200 people, now garners lots of media attention. Vanity Fair is expected to cover the shindig. People magazine, E! and the Hollywood Reporter, among others, have received invitations, said Tracey Kardash, director of The Federation's Entertainment Division.

Vodka Latka is more than a party worthy of the paparazzi. This year's event is expected to raise up to $30,000 for nonprofit groups that service at-risk children, Kardash said. That's in addition to the thousands of dollars that will go directly into The Federation's coffers.

The glitzy gathering also helps to "engage the young Jewish population here," in the words of Federation President John Fishel. Indeed, Vodka Latka has given many young Jews their first exposure to Jewish philanthropy and spurred them to get involved.

A majority of Vodka Latka's 20 committee members, for instance, only joined The Federation after last year's event. And Israeli actress Mili Avital, who attended the 2001 party, has gone on to become a Vodka Latka co-chair. Avital, who has appeared in the Jim Jarmusch western, "Dead Man," and the NBC miniseries. "Uprising," has helped recruit other stars for this year's party, said Scott Einbinder, also a co-chair.

Jonathan Silverman, who starred in "Weekend at Bernie's" and NBC's "The Single Guy" and will appear in the upcoming Showtime movie, "Deacons for Defense," said his Federation involvement has increased significantly since he appeared at last year's event. The 36-year-old actor, son of Rabbi Hillel Silverman, said he has asked "all my pals" to participate at this year's Vodka Latka.

"I'm dragging Evan and Jaron, who are not only great entertainers but great Jews; I'm dragging Bob Saget," he said. "Last year's event was wonderful, and I can only hope this year's will surpass it."

Vodka Latka's ascending star comes at a time when The Federation is rethinking its efforts to raise money and awareness among young Jews.

The organization significantly scaled back its outreach to Jews 25 to 45 when it recently suspended the decade-old ACCESS program, which taught donors about Jewish nonprofit agencies. Featuring Shabbat dinners, weekend retreats and wine-tasting events, ACCESS enjoyed a high degree of popularity but failed to generate enough charitable giving, said Carol Levy, The Federation's vice president of Community Divisions.

Last year, the program brought in $240,000 in donations, about $10,000 less than The Federation spent on ACCESS.

"We've stepped back and taken that past eight months to relook, revise and redefine what The Federation can do for young people," she said. "There are lots and lots and lots of young people who are moving up in their careers, joining synagogues and have discretionary funds. We want to find them."

But The Federation has not abandoned young Jews.

The group reaches them through youth committees in the Legal, Entertainment and Real Estate divisions. The Young Leadership Cabinet brings together a group of donors contributing a minimum of $3,600 to deepen their connection to Jewish charities and the community. L.A. Couples, another program, educates married professionals on The Federation's role and aims to tighten bonds among philanthropic Jews.

Looking forward, The Federation hopes to replace ACCESS with a new, highly targeted program by the beginning of the year. A search is currently underway to find a full-time staff member with experience in youth fundraising, Levy said.

The Federation's goal is to raise $1 million from young lawyers, doctors and other professionals in the next three years and increase the average gift fivefold to $1,000 per person, she said.

Perhaps some vodka and latkes will infuse them with the spirit of giving.

Doors for "Vodka Latka" at the Hollywood Palladium, 6215 Sunset Blvd., Hollywood, open on Dec. 4 at 7 p.m; the program begins at 8:30 p.m. Tickets are $100 (through Dec. 1) and $125 (at the door), plus a minimum pledge of $118 per person to the United Jewish Fund annual campaign. All guests are asked to bring an unwrapped toy for a child 1-17 years old. For tickets, call (323) 761-8316 or visit www.jewishla.org/html/vodkalatka.htm

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