Photo Credit: Jonah Light Photography
StandWithUs’ (SWU) annual “Festival of Lights (FOL)” gala was a resounding success in all ways. With more than 1,000 people in attendance, the memorable evening was heartfelt and inspiring, and a true display of solidarity with Israel and the Jewish people.
Held on December 10, 2023 in Los Angeles, "Festival of Lights" celebrated StandWithUs' 22nd anniversary, and honored Israel's fallen soldiers and citizens, with prayers for the safe return of all the hostages and soldiers. Titled, "An Evening to Stand With Israel and Fight Antisemitism," the evening was co-sponsored by board members Ellie and Bruce Lederman and Debbie and Naty Saidoff, whose generosity brings everyone together each year to showcase StandWithUs' growth, international presence and impact. All proceeds raised at the FOL galas are directed toward its mission of Israel education and combating antisemitism. Once again, Naty Saidoff conducted the fundraising portion of the evening.
Co-founded in 2001 by its CEO Roz Rothstein, its COO Jerry Rothstein and its international president Esther Renzer, StandWithUs is headquartered in Los Angeles. The organization 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 communities. With chapters and programs throughout the United States, Canada, Israel, the UK, Brazil, South Africa, Argentina, The Netherlands and Australia, SWU combats misinformation and dispenses accurate facts about Israel daily in different languages on various platforms to millions of people worldwide.
(Left to Right): Bruce and Ellie Lederman; Nate Neustadt; Gabi Schiller; Major General (RET) Yair Golan; Swell Ariel Or; Enes Kanter Freedom; Esther Renzer; Loay Ahmed Alshareef; Debbie and Naty Saidoff and Roz and Jerry Rothstein
Photo Credit: Jonah Light Photography, Michal Mivzari
Cantors Alison Wissot and Chayim Frenkel sang Acheinu to open the event. The Harkem Hillel Hebrew Academy's childrens choir sang Hatikva, and Rabbi Cantor Alison Wissot and her daughter Abby sang the American Anthem. StandWithUs co-founder and president Esther Renzer welcomed the audience and thanked the National Board for their involvement.
Roz Rothstein, StandWithUs co-founder and CEO and the daughter of two Holocaust survivors said that the Jewish people are in limbo together, waiting to hear about the well being of our hostages and soldiers, and the status of the war with Hamas. Roz said that the situation is personal, and we are in this together. Like the Jewish people who came before us, Roz noted that we are resilient. We have endured so much, including discrimination, ghettos, pogroms and even the Holocaust, and still, we have made it a priority to bring joy to the world. We are even commanded to do so, to "be a light unto the world." With that, she introduced four Rabbis who lit the candles for the 4th night of Chanukah - Rabbi Yonah Bookstein, Rabbi Pini Dunner, Rabbi Chaim Mentz and Rabbi Aryeh Markman.
Israel Bachar, Consul General of Israel to the Pacific Southwest said that from Day 1, we asked SWU to stand with Israel and "you always have and we know it." He reiterated that this war is not about territory, it is about terrorism.
The Israeli actress Swell Ariel Or (Netflix's "Beauty Queen of Jerusalem") emceed the segment of the evening dedicated to the survivors and hostages of October 7th, with recognition for our courageous fallen heroes and courageous IDF fighting the war in Gaza. She said its hard to be away from family and friends but she knows its important to use her voice during this difficult time.
During this segment, the audience heard from Karen Haddad, who survived the Nova Music Festival and Ela Shani, who survived the Kibbutz Be'eri assault, and learned how they turned their grief into action. Both survivors praised the actions and bravery of the IDF and SWU honored Major General (RET) Yair Golan as a hero who saved many lives that day. All three were presented with SWU's "Guardian of Israel" award. Yair said that Israel's motivation is two-fold - returning the hostages and providing security for its people. He emphasized that this is not about revenge or hatred; it is about hope and rebuilding.
A moment of silence was held, after which Sapir Tzemah sang beautiful, moving renditions of Shma Yisrael and Bring Them Home against a backdrop that reminded the audience of the "137 Still in Gaza."
The audience was uplifted by the humor of Elon Gold, after which SWU National Board member Bruce Lederman introduced the keynote speakers: Turkish NBA star Enes Kanter Freedom and Saudi national and outspoken Zionist Loay Ahmed Alshareef. Roz Rothstein moderated a panel with the Muslim leaders who explained how they broke away from their antisemitic upbringing that taught hatred and fear of Israel and Jews. Today, both men work to bring peace to Israel and her neighbors, and acceptance of the Jewish people. Enes announced his plan for creating the "world's biggest basketball school" to bring Abrahamic faiths together.
Scooter Braun received a special award recognizing him for "Standing with Israel and the Jewish people."
Every year SWU honors students who have made a difference in their schools and communities through their courage and leadership with the coveted "Star of David" award. This years honorees are: Gabi Schiller, who battled against antisemitism as a SWU Emerson Fellow at CUNY's Hunter College and is now SWU New England High School Regional Manager, and Nate Neustadt, SWU Kenneth Leventhal High School Intern in San Diego, CA, who has educated teachers and peers and also spoke at the November rally for Israel in Washington DC. Nate stated that becoming an activist and "effecting positive change" became a clear choice when he found himself protecting some girls who were being threatened in a potentially dangerous antisemitic situation. On a background that said "Failure Is Not An Option," Gabi said her activism is dedicated to honoring her grandfather who is a Holocaust survivor. She told the audience that "we represent your priorities on campus."
Mina Rush, SWU's National Director of Middle School Education and Programming, IsraelLINK and Yael Lerman, Director of the StandWithUs Saidoff Legal Department, shared how StandWithUs is educating, inspiring and supporting our students. Mina explained that IsraelLINK allows youth to create their own personal relationships with Israel based on their values which will carry through into adulthood. Yael explained that the number of requests for legal help, especially at universities, has risen 10x from the usual amount since October 7. She said that "we don't need new laws, we need the existing laws to be applied equally to Jews." She stressed the need to hire more staff attorneys to handle the incoming deluge of inquiries.
Roz asked the audience to imagine a world where SWU did not exist. She said that for 22 years we built a huge international organization, working on 6 continents, with 170 employees. Since October 7, our social media has achieved more than 1 billion interactions. SWU videos and materials in different languages are viewed by millions. The campus, high school and middle school departments are responding to constant requests for support from students and community. SWU holds interfaith events with Hindus, Christians and Black Americans, and has doubled the space of the Katz Education Center in Jerusalem to accommodate even more programming for students and international delegations.
StandWithUs resources include the Saidoff Legal Department, Center for Combating Antisemitism, the student leadership programs in high schools and universities, middle school Israel curriculum, a research and strategy department, the Holocaust Education Center, Rabbis United, among many others programs and departments.
There was a silent auction complete with high end items including paintings and jewelry and even an old-fashioned cash register. As in previous years, Pat's Catering prepared the buffet, which had stations including Mediterranean, sushi, Asian, rotisserie and of course, LATKES!
Roz stated that SWU has pivoted and scaled, to take on the newest challenges since October 7th, and that the mission of the organization is to vigorously and unequivocally support Israel and fight antisemitism, for such a time as this.