Photo Credit: Jonah Light Photography and Michelle Mivzari
More than 800 Israel supporters of all ages, faiths and political persuasions joined StandWithUs as it celebrated its annual Festival of Lights gala, held December 10, 2019, at the Beverly Hilton Hotel in Beverly Hills.
The gala was once again sponsored by board members Ellie and Bruce Lederman and Debbie and Naty Saidoff, whose generosity brings everyone together each year for this memorable evening.
Four million dollars (and counting) was raised for the nonprofit organization's annual $15 million budget, with all proceeds directed toward its mission of Israel education and combating antisemitism.
Co-founded in 2001 by its CEO Roz Rothstein, its COO Jerry Rothstein and its international president Esther Renzer and headquartered in Los Angeles, StandWithUs is a leader in the fight against antisemitism and in educating about Israel on campuses, in high schools, in middle schools and in the community. StandWithUs combats misinformation and promotes accurate information about Israel daily in different languages to millions of people worldwide through its powerful social media presence and its chapters across the U.S. and in Israel, Canada, the UK and Brazil. For the last seven years, StandWithUs has consistently received the highest possible ratings from two important charity watchdog groups: Charity Navigator and Guidestar.
Former Prime Minister of Canada Stephen Harper was the keynote speaker at the gala, which also honored Canadian filmmaker Robert Lantos. The Guardian of Israel award went to Arie Katz, a survivor of a terrorist attack, and the Star of David plaque went to two exceptional students, Shayna Lavi and Stephanie Margolis.
Naty Saidoff and Roz Rothstein conducted the live fundraising. Roz explained that contributions can be made to a variety of StandWithUs projects that need support, including the Eric Lederman Fund, in honor of Ellie and Bruce Lederman's late son, which funds educational programs for students. She also explained that over 87 percent of each dollar will go directly into educational programming.
Roz also explained that donations can be earmarked to help expand the StandWithUs Education Center in Jerusalem, which currently reaches more than 30,000 students annually. StandWithUs has a capital campaign to raise funds to build the new education center so that over 100,000 students can be accommodated annually. There are also naming opportunities, with current examples including the StandWithUs Emerson Fellowship, the StandWithUs Evenhaim High School Internship, the StandWithUs Saidoff Legal Department, the Adam and Gila Milstein Foundation's annual StandWithUs Israel in Focus International Conference and the StandWithUs Polak Social Media Department. All StandWithUs departments function on a shoestring budget yet are very successful in reaching high numbers in every category of StandWithUs’ work, so Roz and Naty asked people to invest in success.
Michael Dickson, executive director of StandWithUs Israel, opened the evening by asking the audience to stand in silence for one minute to honor those who were murdered at the horrific Jersey City kosher supermarket shooting that morning.
Attendees heard how, in response to the rise in antisemitism, StandWithUs opened its Center for Combating Antisemitism under the directorship of First Amendment litigation attorney Carly Gammill. The new department collaborates with the StandWithUs Saidoff Legal Department—which is under the direction of Yael Lerman, associate director Jonathan Bell and a team of 170 pro bono lawyers—in providing legal assistance to students, professors and community members in challenging antisemitic incidents.
Robert Kraft, owner of the New England Patriots, who has made it a priority to fight antisemitism, taped a special message praising the work of StandWithUs. He emphasized the importance of instilling a bond among our young people with the state of Israel. He mentioned that he met with StandWithUs students and is proud of StandWithUs for empowering young adults to clearly and unapologetically defend the state of Israel, to fight antisemitism and to be proud of it. He reiterated that together, we can all make a difference.
Consul General of Israel in Los Angeles Hillel Newman commented that Hanukkah represents many things to many people, but, for him, candlelight is a symbol of the soul that survives. Israel had enemies then and has them now, but it also had Maccabees then and now, and he compared StandWithUs to the Maccabees.
Master of ceremonies for the gala was once again comedian Elon Gold, who entertained the audience. Elon is the first comedian to ever perform at the UN for a pro-Israel, anti-BDS event.
This year’s Festival of Lights honoree was acclaimed Canadian film producer Robert Lantos, who is a son of Holocaust survivors born in Hungary. He explained that his love of Israel came not from growing up as a Jew but from being persecuted as a Jew. Roz and Jerry Rothstein and Esther Renzer presented him with a plaque for a "Lifetime of Achievement in Film and His Love for Israel and the Jewish People."
Roz introduced him as "an exceptional storyteller, who luckily chooses to highlight the Jewish story—from pain to triumph." Lantos explained that his latest film, The Song of Names, starring Clive Owen and Tim Roth, was inspired by two words: "Never Again." It deals with friendship, betrayal, remembering and reconciliation. Guests were able to watch the two-minute trailer for the film, which opens December 25.
In accepting his award, the filmmaker recognized that college campuses are breeding grounds for the antisemites of tomorrow. He shared that he is a graduate of McGill University, which has seen its share of anti-Israel campaigns. Lantos assessed that this antisemitic cancer grew while Jewish organizations were busy working in other directions. He emphasized that he is here tonight because StandWithUs is on the forefront of fighting antisemitism, vowing to live the promise of "NEVER AGAIN."
Canadian support for Israel was affirmed at the gala as keynote speaker Stephen Harper, former prime minister of Canada, addressed the audience. He was introduced by Bruce Lederman, StandWithUs board member and co-sponsor of the evening.
Under the former prime minister's leadership, Canada was the only country in the world to consistently vote against bigoted anti-Israel resolutions in the UN Human Rights Council and to stand up to the entire 54-nation Francophonie when it decided to blame Israel for responding to attacks during the second Lebanon war. He was the first to withdraw from the second UN World Conference Against Racism, known as Durban II, (others followed) and the first of his country to address the Knesset. Harper was recently appointed chairman of the Friends of Israel Initiative, an organization of previous heads of state whose key aim is to defend the State of Israel and its right to live in peace within safe and defensible borders.
Harper revealed that he was called a "dirty Jew" in class, and his dad taught him that history proves that those who hate the Jews also wind up scorning modernity and holding animosity toward others. He said that Israel is of vital strategic interest to the Western world as a staunch ally, a beacon of democracy that follows the rule of law, and this leads to furthering human rights, stability and prosperity.
He called BDS a sinister campaign whose call to boycott Israel under the guise of a supposed intellectual argument is simply masking its hatred and said that these people also hate America and the West. He explained that there can be no peace because the Palestinian leadership has rejected numerous offers, refuses to accept Israel's right to exist and calls for the Right of Return. For them, a two-state solution means two Arab states living side by side. No Israeli president would accept this and neither should any American or Western president. The world leader ended by encouraging the audience never to be afraid to take the right position on Israel and to be proud of its accomplishments and progress in just 71 years, despite constant attacks from all sides.
One of the primary focuses of StandWithUs is to support the efforts of students throughout the world in combating misinformation and antisemitism and educating about Israel at their schools and communities. The organization is proud of the achievements of all its college StandWithUs Emerson Fellows, StandWithUs High School Interns and LINK middle school students and, each year, recognizes students whose courageous actions go above and beyond. This year, the Star of David award was given to Shayna Lavi, a UCLA senior, and Stephanie Margolis from the University of Massachusetts Amherst.
Shayna Lavi was harassed by a UCLA anti-Israel professor when she tried to correct misinformation about Israel. Shayna's complaints to the administration were not addressed, and she took a very brave step. In October 2019, Shayna and the StandWithUs Saidoff Legal Department, in collaboration with the StandWithUs Center for Combating Antisemitism, filed a Title VI complaint with the U.S. Department of Education, alleging administrative inaction against antisemitism at UCLA.
Stephanie Margolis is the first recipient of the Roberta Seid Award for Courage and Leadership, which she demonstrated as a StandWithUs Emerson Fellow. As president of the Student Alliance for Israel and a part of the student government at University of Massachusetts Amherst, Stephanie stood tall against being slandered on campus for being a Zionist. She has recently been hired as the first StandWithUs High School Department coordinator for the New England region.
Stephanie began her speech with good news: that the new executive order states that the IHRA definition of antisemitism, which includes anti-Zionism, will now be applied to Title VI cases such as Shayna's at UCLA. Stephanie went on to say that the need to protect Jewish students is more critical than ever before. Anti-Israel events and campaigns are organized by the same malicious group of students, as evidenced by a video she introduced of a rally on the streets of New York that was organized by Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP), calling for the destruction of the state of Israel.
Michael Dickson, executive director of StandWithUs Israel, proudly introduced Arie Katz, the recipient of this year's Guardian of Israel award. Arie is an alumnus of the StandWithUs Israel Fellowship, a coveted one-year diplomacy program for university students. The lights went down, and a video depicted what happened to Arie as he was called up for his annual reserve duty outside the West Bank city of Nablus. He had been barbarically attacked from behind, by a Palestinian terrorist wielding a knife. Arie fought him off, sustaining multiple stab injuries. Arie is lucky to be alive.
Upon the assailant's arrest, "the stabber himself admitted during interrogation that he was brainwashed from stabbing videos circulating on social media, and with no direction in life at age 19, the logical next step was to become a martyr," explained Arie.
Arie thanked Michael, the fellowship and his "extended StandWithUs family" for being so kind to him in the hospital. He stated, "You have no idea how valuable the work of StandWithUs is to all of us in Israel. At a time when people falsely blame Israel for everything and threaten boycotts, StandWithUs is the army that fights for hearts and minds around the world. Arie then extended his own personal appreciation to StandWithUs "for making it a priority to reach out to people in the Arab world...reaching hundreds of thousands of Arabic-speaking people each week, with the hope of building bridges, so that indoctrination and knife attacks against Israelis will be a thing of the past!"
Similar to previous years, StandWithUs founding member Rabbi Cantor Allison Wissot sang the national anthem, and StandWithUs board member Alon Miller led the Hatikvah with heartfelt conviction and devotion to the state of Israel.
The David Kates Orchestra provided the perfect accompaniment to the evening's program, as it has done at every StandWithUs Festival of Lights gala since inception. The delicious, gourmet, kosher dinner was provided by Pat's Restaurant, which is located on Pico Boulevard.
At the pre-gala reception, attendees bid on exciting auction items, including a 2002 limited edition, yellow Chrysler Prowler in pristine condition.
Framed fine art by world-renowned painter, muralist, lithographer and educator Harry Sternberg was also auctioned. Signed and numbered by Mr. Sternberg, the image is part of a limited-edition serigraph series. Other silent auction items included exquisite jewelry items, weekend getaways, high teas, Lakers and Clippers tickets, signed posters and gift certificates.
Upon exiting the event, each attendee was given a signature StandWithUs insulated lunch bag containing designer Hanukkah candles and a jumbo bag of chocolate coins.
Next year's StandWithUs Festival of Lights will take place on Sunday, December 13, 2020!