At Independence Day events around the country, political leaders tend to talk about Israel’s achievements, but seldom do they mention the input of deeply committed philanthropists from around the world, whose financial contributions enable so many varied projects to be transferred from the drawing board to the hospital, research laboratory, classroom, community center, nature reserve or construction site.
Many years ago, the writer of this column had another regular column under the title of Cornucopia, inspired by one day reading plaques covering a wall in only one of the departments at Hadassah- University Medical Center. But such plaques exist on many walls in every hospital, university, youth village, cultural center and community building in Israel. If they were put end to end, they would take up more than the entire length of the country. They serve as testimony to the involvement of Diaspora Jewry with nearly every facet of Israel’s development. Even if Diaspora Jews choose not to live here, many have a passion for Israel, and those who are sufficiently fortunate to be affluent contribute enormous sums of money to ensure Israel’s future.
This was obvious last week at United Israel Appeal’s Yakir Keren Hayesod Awards, in which dedicated supporters from many parts of the world came together to honor the best of the best in their midst.
The Yakir awards are usually presented at the Keren Hayesod Annual World Conference, which like annual general gatherings of most Zionist organizations and institutions traditionally takes place in June, during the summer vacation period of countries in the northern hemisphere, but this year the World Conference was brought forward to coincide with Remembrance Day and Independence Day, so that the people who give so much to Israel could feel part of Israel.
Moderator for the evening was prize-winning, hard-hitting Channel 2 anchor and journalist Dana Weiss, who left her journalistic cynicism at home and was so impressed by the love for Israel of the awardees that, before the evening was over, she said that she wanted to thank them not only on behalf of United Israel Appeal but also on a personal level.
By the way, you don’t have to be Jewish to receive the Yakir award.
The first of the awardees, who received standing ovations before and after she spoke, was Indonesian- born diamond wholesaler Sherly America-Gosal, who now lives in the Netherlands but travels extensively throughout Asia, making friends for Israel. As a child, she read about God’s love for Israel in the Bible, and could not understand why there was so much hatred for Israel in the media. When she asked her parents about this, they told her to believe in the Bible.
She has promoted United Israel Appeal throughout Asia, and came to Israel with a large entourage of Asian friends from different Asian countries. She has held fund-raising events for Israel in Indonesia, Singapore, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Malaysia, South Korea and Papua New Guinea. Last year she was elected president of the Women’s Division of Keren Hayesod’s Friends of Israel.
She admitted that it was difficult for her to operate in strongly Muslim countries, such as her homeland, but she had persevered and succeeded.
The other Yakir honorees were American-born Robert Drake and his South African-born wife, Renee, who like America-Gosal live in the Netherlands. Aside from their work with and for United Israel Appeal, the Drakes support other Israeli enterprises such as the Weizmann Institute of Science, the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra and the Israel Cancer Association, and they have established four theater groups for children in Sha’ar Hanegev, Beersheba, Shlomi and Jerusalem.
Pierre Haas, an honoree from France, who was unable to attend, grew up in a very Zionist family, and is one of United Israel Appeal’s staunchest activists and supporters in France.
John Michael Schaffer, from Perth, Western Australia, is the son of Yugoslavian Holocaust survivors who settled in the island continent in 1949. Schaffer was born a year later. His father went into business and was very successful, sharing his wealth where it could do the most good. This legacy of philanthropy was imbued in the next generation, so much so that Yuval Rotem, former ambassador to Australia, said that it was mandatory for Israeli visitors to stop at the Schaffer home.
Schaffer and his wife, Debbie, are renowned for their hospitality, and those visitors who were also down under for a cause did not leave empty- handed.
Most Israelis are well aware of the type of South American exuberance that follows a goal in a soccer match. The Latinos get just as excited when one of their own is honored. Thus when Jorge Armando Stern from Buenos Aires, who supports numerous organizations and institutions and is the chairman of Keren Hayesod in Argentina, was called to the stage as the last Yakir recipient for the evening, a roar went up from that part of the banquet hall at the Jerusalem Waldorf Astoria where his family and friends were seated.
Aside from his very strong emotions for Israel, Stern also has a very personal interest in the country.
His daughter moved to Israel 20 years ago, and lives in Binyamina with her family.
The presentation of the awards was preceded by an address by Tel Aviv Chief Rabbi (and former chief rabbi of Israel) Yisrael Meir Lau, who has a very special relationship with Keren Hayesod that goes back to his childhood. It is a fairly wellknown fact that Lau was the youngest survivor of Buchenwald. What is less known, other than in Keren Hayesod and Lau family circles, is that Lau and his older brother, Naftali, were brought to the Land of Israel by Keren Hayesod. In lifelong appreciation, Lau has traveled abroad on speaking engagements for Keren Hayesod, and most of the people present had heard him before, but were all eager to hear him again.
Lau is very often a hit-and-run speaker, staying after his speech just long enough to make his farewells.
But this time he stayed nearly all night, leaving just before the fabulous Voca People did their amazing entertainment act, which kept everyone enthralled and amused – a truly memorable finale to Independence Day.
■ ETHIOPIAN AMBASSADOR Helawe Yosef accompanied Patriarch Abune Mathias of the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church together with Jerusalem-based Ethiopian bishops, when the patriarch met with President Reuven Rivlin. The patriarch is no stranger to Jerusalem, having lived here for several years in exile during the communist dictatorship of Mengistu Haile Mariam.
It was inevitable that the tale of the Queen of Sheba and King Solomon would come into the conversation between the patriarch and Rivlin.
It was the patriarch who raised the subject, saying: “The relationship between Ethiopia and Israel is one of the most ancient religious and diplomatic encounters in the history of the world, which dates back three centuries and remains to this day. Whenever we come to the Holy Land, we are always aware we are following in the footsteps of those who came with the Queen of Sheba, who came to Jerusalem to meet King Solomon.”