Grapevine: The Anglo factor in volunteerism

An award for feminist Alice Shalvi, a French Legion of Honor for conductor Zubin Mehta, and a medal for violinist Itamar Zorman.

■ THE ANGLO representation among this year’s recipients of the President’s Prize for Volunteerism was completely disproportionate to the number of Anglos in the population. At least four of the 12 honorees at Beit Hanassi last week were native English-speakers, as are many of the volunteers in their respective organizations and in some of the other organizations that received citations. It was exciting to see the reactions of family, friends and supporters as each citation was read out. They stood up, they cheered, snapped photos and basked in reflected glory.
Some, like those who came to cheer eminent oncologist Prof. Benjamin Corn – originally from Brooklyn, New York – were already thinking ahead to the celebration party at his home the following evening. His wife Dvora (Phyllis) had been planning it for weeks – from the moment, in fact, that she’d learned he was to be a recipient. A mental and family therapist, she is his partner at Tishkofet, which they founded in 2003 to help change perceptions of terminal illness and to demonstrate how quality can be imbued in the lives of patients and their families during the time left to them. She saw the party not only as a celebration, but also as a modest fundraiser: Invitees were asked not to bring gifts, but if they felt like it to donate to Tishkofet.
OneFamily, the organization dedicated to helping victims of terrorism and their families, was pioneered by the Jerusalem-based Belzberg family, which hails from Canada; Joseph Gitler, the founder of Leket, which collects millions of kilograms of food to distribute daily to the poor, is originally from Teaneck, New Jersey; and Stanley Seba, who wages a nonstop battle for the rights of people with special needs, made aliya from England.
Among the 1,600 volunteers of Hatzalah, the emergency response organization founded by Israeli-born Eli Beer (whose English is so fluent that people think that he’s an oleh), are numerous native English-speaking paramedics, and Akim, which works with the mentally disabled, also has a large number of Anglos among its volunteers. In addition, Yadid LeHinuch is largely funded by the American-based Gottesman Foundation.
The most moving aspect of the ceremony was the presence of Tzvia Riban, who had come to receive the prize awarded to her late son Elad, the 16-year-old volunteer killed in the Carmel Forest fire. But another incredibly moving aspect was the inclusion of Nadav Gershoni in the entertainment line-up. Gershoni, who is in the care of Akim, has a fine voice, but was slightly hesitant when he started singing.
The rhythmic and encouraging clapping of the large audience spurred his self-confidence, and he kept getting better as he went along. The ovation he received when he finished could have been accorded to a pop star. The expression on his face was worth a million dollars.
■ THE ACTIVITIES of Israel Prize laureate Alice Shalvi, Israel’s supreme feminist in the most positive sense of the word, are manifold. Although she was born in Germany, her family moved to Britain soon after Hitler’s rise to power. She came on aliya from England in 1949.
Notwithstanding that she has lived in Israel for more than six decades, her British accent and her love of Shakespeare have remained constant. Last week, at a joyful and nostalgic ceremony at the Konrad Adenauer convention center at Mishkenot Sha’ananim, Shalvi was given a lifetime achievement award by the New Israel Fund in conjunction with the Dafna Fund, named for the late Prof. Dafna Izraeli, a committed feminist and a close friend of Shalvi’s. This was actually the fourth time Shalvi had been honored by the New Israel Fund, but who’s counting? Many of her spiritual daughters and quite a few men were in the audience, among them her husband Moshe, with whom she still has an enduring love affair after 61 years of marriage, six children (three of each gender), 21 grandchildren and three great grandchildren. “My wife Alice is the most extraordinary woman,” he said, joining her on stage to speak of her pursuit of peace, her love of her fellow human being and her devotion to the Torah.
The moderator was former long-time Jerusalem City Councillor Anat Hoffman, who, if she ever decides to give up her present position as executive director of the Israel Religious Action Center, would make a first-class stand-up comedienne.
Her gift for mimicry and her spontaneous one-liners cracked everyone up.
A short list of Shalvi’s achievements includes the establishment of the English literature department at Ben-Gurion University, introducing a revolutionary curriculum at the Pelech experimental school for Orthodox girls, creating the Israel Women’s Network, reaching out to Palestinian women to find common denominators, and most recently a four-year stint as rector of the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies.
Along the way, there were people who disapproved of both her religious and political activities, but there are arguably more who admired her integrity, her tenacity and her commitment to equality, peace and justice.
At the evening in her honor, single mother Michal Baruch Alfassi, whose father and ex-husband believed that women were simply there to care for the home and the children and to be a comfort to their husbands, thanked Shalvi “for moving the curtain” and inspiring her to get an education.
Tammy Biton, a Pelech graduate living in Yeroham, is trying to do there what Shalvi did at Pelech. Lilach Sela, who had been an aguna, anchored for 11 years in a marriage she was trying to leave, said it was thanks to Shalvi and various women’s organizations that she was finally free. Shalvi, who was raised Orthodox, later turned to the Conservative Movement.
It took her American-born and -educated husband a little longer to move in that direction, but now he, too, feels comfortable in the Conservative synagogue and is happy to be able to sit with his wife.
“Alice is a Jewish reformer, but not a Reform Jew,” said Hoffman.
■ JUST A few months ahead of the 100th anniversary of Hadassah, the Women’s Zionist Organization of America, Marcie Natan will be installed as the organization’s 25th president at a gala dinner Wednesday night in Las Vegas.
Three former national presidents, along with outgoing National President Nancy Falchuk, will be in attendance.
They include Bernice Tannenbaum – the grand lady of Hadassah, who has been a member for more than 65 years – Marlene Post, and Bonnie Lipton. Also witnessing the changing of the guard will be more than 400 national board members, delegates, associates (male supporters of Hadassah’s work) and guests.
“This is an exciting time for Hadassah,” said Falchuk. “We have so much to celebrate. We have added 29,000 new members and associates to our ranks of almost 300,000 since we kicked off our centennial membership drive in January, and as of May 31, we have raised $257 million toward our Sarah Wetsman Davidson Hospital Tower in Jerusalem.”
Hadassah anticipates that it will begin treating patients in the tower in March of next year. The tower, estimated at a budget of $363m., remains Hadassah’s top fundraising priority.
The organization has outpaced itself this year, and has already raised more than $18m. toward the 2011 campaign goal of $20m.
■ TO CELEBRATE the 75th birthday year of conductor Zubin Mehta and the maestro’s 50th anniversary with the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra, French Ambassador Christophe Bigot decided to make him an officer of the French Legion of Honor. He hosted a reception last Thursday at his residence in Jaffa for Mehta and some of his adoring fans, including fellow Indians Reena and Vinod Pushkarna who are among his closest friends in Israel; composer and conductor Noam Sheriff; Raya Jaglom, who has been attending IPO concerts since long before Mehta’s association with it; Gad and Etti Proper; Kadima MK Meir Sheetrit and his ever-elegant wife Ruthie; and Bruno Landsberg.
Bigot acknowledged that there was something a little unusual about a French ambassador in Israel conferring the Legion of Honor on a world-renowned Indian of Farsi background who has conducted the most important orchestras in the world. He described Mehta as “an exceptional artist – a pure musical genius” and said he was pleased to see so many of his IPO friends who had braved the traffic and what he termed “the Jaffa balagan” (a large section of road leading to the ambassador’s residence had been dug up and fenced in, and drivers and pedestrians were forced to take alternate routes).
He listed some of the things Mehta had done over the years to promote peace and justice and to encourage democratic development and dialogue, not only in this part of the world, but also in other areas of conflict, such as Sarajevo.
Bigot underscored that Mehta had taken the IPO to Weimar as a symbol of reconciliation between Israel and Germany, and recalled the concert given a year ago on the Gaza border for Gilad Schalit in the hope that the kidnapped soldier might hear it. In Israel, Bigot noted, Mehta’s name is linked not only with the IPO, but with a project to encourage young musicians and with the Buchmann-Mehta School of Music at Tel Aviv University.
This was not the first time the conductor has received the French Legion of Honor. It was previously awarded to him at the Elysees Palace by President Jacques Chirac, but he had been one of a group of eight recipients; this time, he was the sole recipient.
He was waiting for the opportunity, he said, for the IPO to play with a French orchestra as it has played with other orchestras around the world. “There is no language in the world stronger than music,” he said, noting that in his native India, it united people from the North and the South. It did the same in Africa and Europe, he said, and here in Israel, he remembered Israelis and Arabs sitting together on the wall in Acre to listen to Beethoven and Tchaikovsky. When he first came to Israel 50 years ago, he said, the Barenboims had taken him for a walk around Tel Aviv, and he had felt at home immediately.
The ongoing Mehta-IPO celebration will continue next week in Jerusalem at a special concert at Beit Hanassi. Mehta and the orchestra will again be in the capital toward the end of the month to accompany acclaimed mega soprano Renee Fleming at her premier performance here at the Jerusalem International Convention Center.
■ DURING THE large wave of Russian aliya, there was a joke circulating that any Russian immigrant who got off the plane without a violin case in his hand... was a pianist. Indeed, this was probably the largest, most highly trained musical aliya in the country’s history.
In an additional string to his bow – and seemingly bringing coals to Newcastle – Israeli violinist Itamar Zorman won a silver medal at the International Tchaikovsky Competition in St. Petersberg. No gold medal was given this year, and Zorman tied with Russian violinist Sergei Dagadin for the silver in their particular category.
Zorman has previously won competitions in other countries and has played with major orchestras in Israel and abroad. He has music in his genes. His mother is pianist Esterit Baltzan, and his father is the composer Moshe Zorman.
In the piano section of the contest that was held in Moscow, the winner was Russian pianist Daniil Trifonov, who also won the overall Grand Prix prize as the best performer in the competition.
Trifonov won the Rubinstein competition in Tel Aviv in May, and a few months prior to that the Chopin piano competition in Warsaw.
■ IN A non-related Russian development, the Russian Federation’s ambassador-designate to Israel is Sergei Yakovlev.
No stranger to Israel or the region at large, having previously served as the Russian Foreign Ministry’s special envoy to the Middle East, he will probably find it easier than most ambassadors to settle in due to his many friends and acquaintances here.
■ TO MARK the end of the traditional 30-day period of mourning, the Board of Directors of the Tel Aviv Museum of Art will conduct a memorial tribute Wednesday night to its director and chief curator, Prof. Mordechai Omer, who succumbed to cancer a month ago. He had been curator of the Museum since 1995, and directed the Genia Schreiber Art Gallery, which he founded at Tel Aviv University. His vision for the extension of the Tel Aviv Museum was realized in his lifetime, as construction of its Herta and Paul Amir New Building was approved; the building’s inauguration is set for October. It will serve as a repository for the chronological history of Israeli art – in itself a tribute to Omer, who was also an art historian of world renown.
■ GUESTS ATTENDING the state dinner that President Shimon Peres hosted for Greek President Karolos Papoulias were somewhat surprised that the usual receiving line protocol, in which each guest is introduced to the two presidents by the Foreign Ministry’s Chief of Protocol Talya Lador- Fresher, had been scrapped. For the first time at such dinners, each guest was presented not only with a place card, but also an introductory card with his or her name and position.
Some people put it down to the fact that both presidents are octogenarians and that standing up for such a long time to receive each guest would put a strain on them.
It later transpired that Peres, while betraying no sign of the fact, was in acute pain. Earlier in the day, he had knocked his leg against a chest of drawers in his private residence, and the impact had caused his leg to swell. The paramedic who is always on hand gave him first aid insisted that he go to the hospital, but Peres refused, because he did not want to risk being detained and having to cancel the dinner. He went to the Hadassah Medical Center late at night after his guests had left, and was examined and released.
Peres and Papoulias go back a long way, to the days when they were ideologists in the Socialist International, an organization Peres said had played a significant role in the Oslo accords. He also had a few words of comfort for his guest regarding the severe economic crisis that has overtaken Greece. Reminding those present of Israel’s 400-percent-plus galloping inflation in the 1980s, Peres recalled that hardly anyone had believed at that time that Israel could recover.
But miraculously, just as it has overcome other vicissitudes, Israel overcame this one. From this experience, Peres was confident that Greece, too, would also overcome this crisis and emerge from it stronger than ever.
■ AT THE pre-dinner reception, Arye Mekel, Israel’s Ambassador to Greece, was happily renewing his acquaintance with Israeli friends and colleagues, while Ali Yahya – a former ambassador to Greece, and the first Israeli Arab to be accorded the rank of ambassador – caught up with friends and colleagues from Greece. Yahya’s first ambassadorial appointment was to Finland in 1995. Mekel, who is a polished raconteur, regaled Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman and Israel Navy chief Adm. Eli Marom with stories about the flotilla that couldn’t leave Greece for Gaza.
■ POLITICIANS ARGUABLY lead a much more active social life than most other people, because aside from attending the celebrations of births, bar/bat mitzvas, engagement parties, weddings and sheva brachot of relatives and friends, they also have to attend those of fellow politicians, as well as diplomatic events, business, cultural and social welfare conventions, gala dinners and concerts for good causes.
In the Labor Party, just ahead of the September elections for party chairman, it is more important than ever for candidates to accept invitations. Thus, when Isaac Herzog received an invitation to the bat mitzva of May, the daughter of Labor activist and member of the Ashdod Port Company Asher Ohayon and his wife Merav, he accepted with alacrity. Another prominent Labor personality among the guests was MK Binyamin Ben-Eliezer, who is a former party chairman, but is not running in the current race.
Ben-Eliezer looked completely recovered from the illness that caused him to spend several weeks in hospital, where at one stage there were fears for his survival. Judging by the relish with which he sampled the food offerings, he’s also regained his appetite.