July 26, 2007
Does Hollywood give Jewish?
(Page 4 - Previous Page)"The goal of this is to get them to start believing in philanthropy now so it is a part of their being as they grow in their careers and professional development," Weiss said.
In a place where time is money -- and the young have no time to spare and even less money -- donating energy and enthusiasm is how many young Jews choose to give back.
"In Israel, you did Milu'im, which is reserve duty, and officers do it between 30 and 42 days a year. If you live in America, you don't have to do that. The least I could do is volunteer for the community and help people less fortunate than us," said Amotz Zakai, vice president of Echo Lake Productions.
Zakai, 34, who moved from Israel to Los Angeles 12 years ago, volunteered for five years with The Federation and ran a youth program at Temple Israel of Hollywood that planted trees, cooked for AIDS patients and visited women's shelters.
"We really live in this bubble, especially in Hollywood. There is no connection to the real world. It is like this magical wonderland," he said. "Think about it: We do jury duty for one or two days here, and we get upset about it. In Israel, you serve in a reserve unit in the Gaza Strip and you might die."
Cynical. Pessimistic. Lazy. Uninspired. Gen-Xers may be the most maligned generation since the Gilded Age, but they also learned a lot more about charity at a younger age than their parents. That's become increasingly the case with Generation Y, or the Millenialists.
"What I am getting from the people who come to me -- the agents and celebs and whoever else comes through -- is this, and this is refreshing," said Michelle Kleinert, executive director of the Lastfogel Foundation at William Morris. "'I don't want to just write a check. I write a lot of checks. I want to get involved. I don't have a lot of time, but I want to do something I am passionate about.'"
For Brad Fuller (photo), producer of "The Hitcher" and "The Amityville Horror," that meant delivering Shabbat meals to homebound Jews and getting involved with the American Jewish Committee (AJC) and its annual dinner at which an entertainer -- the past three were Barry Meyer, Amy Pascal and Joe Roth -- is given the Dorothy and Sherrill C. Corwin Human Relations Award, which is named for Fuller's maternal grandparents, who owned Metropolitan Theaters.
"It is my responsibility to continue the tradition of my grandparents," said Fuller, 41. "If you can, it is a blessing to be able to give back. I was taught to do it. I was raised doing it. I don't know anything else."
The AJC reported that last fall's dinner brought in $1.5 million for the national organization. A lot of that is thanks to having a name like Meyer's, the chairman and CEO of Warner Bros., on the program. This is an advantage of being a household name in Hollywood: Your involvement with charities doesn't so much demand that you dig into your pocket as it creates the expectation you'll inspire others to reach into theirs.
And when words speak louder than actions, an entertainer's message often means more than their money. That is why the Consulate General of Israel recently created a special consul liaison to Hollywood. And that is why Sam Nazarian, a young Persian Jew, whose company SBE Entertainment owns several nightclubs and produced the film "Mr. Brooks" this spring, held a fundraiser last October at his Sunset club Privilege for victims of Hezbollah rocket fire in Israel's north.
"People in Hollywood are often viewed as trendsetters," Nazarian said, "and that is an important role when translated to charity."
Spielberg, in particular, wields unfathomable influence; in May, he told the Chinese government that he was ready to meet with President Hu Jintao to urge Beijing to help stop genocide in Darfur.
But Tinseltown is a fickle place, and even Spielberg's popularity as a supporter of Jewish causes has ebbed and flowed. After directing "Schindler's List," founding the Shoah Foundation to record the stories of Holocaust survivors and creating the Righteous Persons Foundation, to which he has contributed about $70 million, predominantly for Jewish causes, Spielberg's social capital took a significant blow two years ago with the release of his film "Munich" -- criticized as "an anti-Zionist epic" and "a politically correct 'Mein Kampf' for our time."
"It takes a Hollywood ignoramus to give flesh to the argument of a radical anti-Semitic Iranian," Washington Post columnist Charles Krauthammer griped.
Less than a year later, with Israel at war with Hezbollah in southern Lebanon, Spielberg was exalted as a hero when his Righteous Persons Foundation donated $1 million for Israeli relief. The money was significant, but his philanthropic adviser said the gesture was more so.
"Having someone like Steven Spielberg back a cause provides a seal of approval, a mark of credibility, for much of the Hollywood community," Andy Spahn told The Journal last August.
Israel has traditionally been taboo for Hollywood philanthropy, too politically charged for the image-conscious. Sure, Joshua Malina had no problem speaking out during the Second Intifada on behalf of Israel and Jason Alexander wasn't punished for joining a few other actors on the Israeli-Palestinian peace initiative One Voice. But such cases have been the exception, not the rule -- until a few years ago, and not just for Jews but non-Jews, too.
Last summer, 84 celebrities signed a letter than ran as a full-page ad in the Los Angeles Times urging the world to support Israel's fight against Hezbollah, Hamas and terrorism. Jews and non-Jews joined hands, including Sylvester Stallone and Sumner Redstone, Nicole Kidman and Haim Saban to state: "If we do not succeed in stopping terrorism around the world, chaos will rule and innocent people will continue to die."
There is, however, another emphasis for entertainers concerned about supporting the Holy Land -- giving a leg up to Israel's burgeoning picture business.
"The Jewish mentality and the Jewish sense of the importance of art and the importance of culture is now exploding out of Israel," said Joan Hyler, founder of Hyler Management. "And thank god we have something to talk about, except for the other explosions out of there that have haunted us for the past 10 years."
In May, not long after the Israeli Film Festival came through town, Hyler, another talent agent and an actor/writer/producer went with The Federation to Tel Aviv to teach a three-day class titled "Hollywood 101." On the third day, Peter Spears shared his journey from Kansas country boy to producer of the new HBO series "John From Cincinnati."
"This is your moment," Spears told a crowd of actors and writers, according to The Federation's newsletter. "Hollywood is looking at Israel right now."
This was the first time Spears, 40, had been to Israel and the second time he had gotten involved with The Federation. The first experience was volunteering to help the elderly after noticing a flier for the organization at an audition. To his pleasure, he was connected with a nonagenarian who made a name in silent films, Loyal Lucas.
"I'd only been out here several years, not a long time, and trying to do this whole Hollywood thing. And here was somebody who had been there in the beginning of Hollywood," Spears said.
Spears' second involvement -- the sojourn to Israel -- so moved him that he had his bar mitzvah at the Western Wall. Coupled together, the experiences taught Spears the importance of getting personally involved.
"It is easier to write a check, but you don't get as much back from the experience as you do when you do it in person," he said. "I wouldn't have the fond memories of going to Israel or spending time with Loyal. I only have a vague recollection of it during tax time. And then you get kind of solicited by them for eternity. That one-on-one thing is really great. Twice now in my life it has been an amazing experience The Federation has afforded me. And if they called me again, I wouldn't hesitate to do whatever it was they asked."
When asked to compare the next generation to the legends of show biz, Bruce Ramer, the high-powered entertainment lawyer and honorary national president of the AJC, said it couldn't be done.
"Wasserman was supportive and active in ways and respects that were appropriate to that day and age," Ramer said of his late friend. "I don't think one can indulge and say he did it better than others. We continue to have exceedingly generous and great people who are leaders. I'm not sure I can compare them; that was a different time.
"Different times, different styles, different methods, different technology, different concerns."
In other words, Hollywood will continue to have Jewish leaders who care about more than themselves, who give time and money to Jewish organizations and secular ones too. The times will change. So will the methods and expressions of charity. But the values remain the same.