Photo Credit: Jonah Light Photography
The show was sold out and had a waiting list. More than 400 Israel supporters of all ages, faiths and political persuasions joined StandWithUs as it celebrated its 20th year anniversary at its annual "Festival of Lights" gala, on December 5, 2021. Held at the spacious Wilshire Ebell Social Club and Theater, guests showed proof of vaccination or negative COVID tests, were able to eat outside or inside, and wore masks inside the theater. The 2020 gala was held virtually to international audiences of tens of thousands. The 2021 event was also live-streamed, reaching thousands more during and after the show. It can be viewed here: https://www.standwithus.com/fol-gala
The theme of this year's gala is "Hineni (I am Here) A Night To Honor Heroes." A huge "Hineni" graphic illuminated on a wall looked down as guests enjoyed a sumptuous buffet dinner and dessert reception by Pat's restaurant. As in previous years, the David Kates orchestra played classic Israeli songs including "Jerusalem of Gold," and Sam Glaser and his band played live music during the dinner.
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 incredible StandWithUs international showcase event. All proceeds raised at the Festival of Lights galas are directed toward its mission of Israel education and combating antisemitism. As in previous years, Naty Saidoff conducted the fundraiser portion of the evening.
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, on social media, and in the community. With chapters and programs on five continents including the US, Canada, the UK, Brazil and South Africa, StandWithUs combats misinformation and promotes accurate information about Israel daily in different languages to millions of people worldwide.
Welcoming guests, thrilled to be together again in-person, Roz explained the dark challenges we are facing these days with antisemitism and the BDS campaigns such as Ben & Jerry's boycotting Israel. "But," she said, "like Chanukah, each one of us can become a light." She explained how SWU's many programs are meeting these challenges. It is accomplishing so much with 150 worldwide staffers and a comparably meager budget of $15 million to organizations with $50-100 million budgets. "SWU acts like it is ten organizations, reasoned Rothstein. "For the last ten years, StandWithUs has consistently received the highest possible ratings from charity watchdog groups: Charity Navigator and Guidestar. The 2020 audit revealed that 87 percent of each dollar goes directly into educational programming, as in previous years.
The gala honorees and speakers exemplify the true meaning of "Hineni," stepping up to combat antisemitism through their courage, dedication and support Israel, despite many challenges.
(L to R) Rebecca Katzman, Ethan Greifman, Col. Golan Vach, Roz Rothstein, Bruce Lederman, Naty Saidoff, Mina Rush, Mher Hagopian, Gil Troy, Jerry Rothstein, Esther Renzer, Elon Gold, Carly Gammil | Photo credit: Jonah Light Photography
It began with an award-winning film about Israel's humanitarian efforts worldwide made by former Emerson Fellow Rachel Lester who went on to become a lone soldier.
Comedian Elon Gold joked about Jews and Covid-19 and emceed the event, as in previous years.
Bruce Lederman introduced award-winning historian, professor Gil Troy who was the keynote speaker. He inspired all to not give up, especially when confronted by Jews who "bash us when we are down and to practice Jew-Jitsu." He implored us to bring back Zionism because AM ISRAEL CHAI and we are the "ever-dreaming people who are Hineni." Gift bags contained signed copies of his latest book, The Zionist Ideas: Visions for the Jewish Homeland – Then, Now, Tomorrow.
Bal Harbour, Florida Mayor Gabriel Groisman, a staunch supporter of Israel and great friend of StandWithUs, spoke of waking up to the horror of the Surfside building collapse. He immediately contacted the IDF who sent search and rescue crews to the site. He introduced Colonel Golan Vach who led the Israeli team not only in Surfside, but also in Haiti after the tragic earthquake, and more recently to Brazil to help with their search and rescue. Roz, Jerry and Esther presented Golan with the "Star of David" award.
(L to R) - Jerry Rothstein, Mayor Gabriel Groisman, Roz Rothstein, Colonel Golan Vach.
Photo Credit: Michelle Mivzari
A forceful critic of the BDS movement, New York Congressman Ritchie Torres (D-15), said his mission is to establish himself as a pro-Israel progressive voice in the Democratic party and drive home the message that supporting Israel is a profound expression of the progressive values of defending human rights, co-existence and progress.
Carly Gammill, director of StandWithUs' Center for Combating Antisemitsm, spoke of the Center's work especially in handling legal cases. StandWithUs works continuously to cultivate the next generation and Carly introduced the recipients of the "Leaders of Tomorrow '' award. They are: Ethan Geifman, a SWU Kenneth Leventhal High School Intern who confronted antisemitism at his high school in Iowa; Rebecca Katzman, who battled BDS campaigns at Ryerson University in Canada and continued when she became a SWU Emerson Fellow, and who is now combating antisemitism and BDS campaigns at universities throughout the country as SWU Canada's Campus Director. Activist Jennifer Karlan spoke of her commitment to the state of Israel, to combating antisemitism and to continuing this fight as she enters her university next year.
Roz introduced a special surprise guest: Armenian-Lebanese Christian Mher Hagopian who stood up and fought against assailants that attacked Jews dining at a sushi restaurant in Los Angeles this year. She presented him with the "Guardian of Israel" award, and the audience gave him an emotional standing ovation.
(L to R) Mher Hagopian, Colonel Golan Vach, Rebecca Katzman, Jennifer Karlan, Ethan Geifman. Photo Credit: Jonah Light Photography
In taped messages, Israeli Foreign Minister and alternate Prime Minister Yair Lapid and Israel's Ambassador to the UN Gilad Erdan expressed their deep gratitude and praised SWU for always being there to say "Hineni," for the last 20 years, standing up for the Jewish people and our homeland no matter what happens.
The audience gave a standing ovation to the Spirit of David Choir, the City of Refuge Church in Los Angeles and Cantor Ilysia Pierce for their performance of "Hallelujah," the moving song they sang at SWU's virtual "Christian-Jewish Interfaith Concert" held earlier this year. The choir's Prez Blackmon opened the festivities with the "Star Spangled Banner." Cantor Pierce, accompanied on the piano by 4-time Emmy Award winning composer, Sharon Farber sang "Something About the Candles." "Hatikvah" as in previous years, was sung by SWU National Board member Alon Miller. Hostess Debbie Saidoff and Board member Helen Dayan lit the 8 candles as Cantor Nati Baram of Young Israel of North Beverly Hills did the Chanukah Brachot and led the audience in Ma'oz Tzur.
Prior to the start of the show, there was a very special ribbon-cutting ceremony for an ambulance donated through American Friends of Magen David Adom to Israel by the Lindenbaum family in honor of "StandWithUs and the Abraham Accords and their Contributions to Peace and Security in Israel." Eleanor Lindenbaum and son David cut the ribbon and spoke of their admiration of StandWithUs and the milestone that the Abraham Accords represent.
(L to R) Jerry Rothstein, Roz Rothstein, Eleanor Lindenbaum and Esther Renzer. Photo Credit: Michelle Mivzari
StandWithUs (SWU) is an international, non-profit and non-partisan Israel education organization that works to inspire and educate people of all ages about Israel, as well as challenge misinformation and fight against antisemitism.
Through university fellowships, high school internships, middle school curricula, conferences, materials, social media, educational films and missions to Israel, StandWithUs supports people around the world who want to educate their schools and communities about Israel.
Founded in 2001 and headquartered in Los Angeles, the organization has programs on five continents with chapters and offices throughout the U.S., in Israel, the UK, Canada and Brazil.
For the last ten years, SWU has consistently received the highest possible ratings from Charity Navigator (4 stars) and Guidestar (Platinum).