On the seventh night of Chanukah -- a holiday that marks the miraculous triumph of faith over darkness -- 350 members of the Greater Philadelphia Jewish community came together to celebrate the modern-day miracles made possible by the annual campaign of the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia.
Donors heard inspiring stories about how different lives were influenced by campaign-funded programs and services. Captured on video and through first-person accounts, they set the stage for the 2011 Federation Campaign kick-off event, which brought in $2.6 million.
The event at the Philadelphia Hilton City Avenue was keynoted by Forbes magazine's editor-in-chief, Steve Forbes.
Each of the people who shared their stories with guests at the Dec. 7 event reflected the diverse ways that Federation brings light to the lives of Jews in Greater Philadelphia, in Israel and in the former Soviet Union.
Holocaust survivor Manya Freydman-Perel spoke of the support, sustenance and friendship she receives through daily attendance at the JCC Klein, which she refers to as her "second home." Allison Graub, a student at the Jack M. Barrack Hebrew Academy, expressed her appreciation for Federation support of Jewish overnight camping, an experience that she said "made me feel self-confident about my Jewish identity." Phil Neff, a member of Federation's Renaissance affinity group for young adults, said that he was "living proof" of the transformational impact of Birthright Israel, a Federation-funded program that provides free 10-day trips to Israel for young people.
Addressing the attendees, Federation vice president Sherrie Savett voiced her personal pride in the "Federation's responsiveness to Jewish community needs, both locally and globally."
She issued a charge to dinner guests to respond to the victims of the recent fire in northern Israel that claimed the lives of 43 Israelis and ravaged thousands of acres of the Jewish state.
Toward that end, she announced the launch of Federation's Israel Fire Relief Fund, a special solicitation effort designed to raise $100,000 in support of two specific projects: providing school supplies to the 500 displaced residents of the Yemin Orde Youth Village near Haifa, and helping to rebuild and repair a 7- to 8-mile stretch of Shvil Yisrael, the Israel National Trail. Savett said Federation also plans to sponsor a hands-on volunteer mission to the area as soon as Israel's Society for the Protection of Nature gives its clearance.
The crowd rallied to the call to action, immediately coming up with the $100,000 for this special initiative, plus $2,000 extra to boot.
To contribute to the fund, call 215-832-3484.
'Boxing Above Its Weight'
Guest speaker Steve Forbes, who defines himself as an accomplished corporate executive and a generous philanthropist, explained why high achievements in the corporate arena drive a commitment to charitable concerns.
"You succeed in both arenas by meeting the needs and wants of others," he said.
He described the United States as "the most commercial and the most philanthropic nation ever created," directing significant sums of its gross national product to charitable concerns.
But Forbes reserved his highest praise for Israel's achievements in both of these arenas, praising the nation of just 7.6 million people as "boxing above its weight."
Forbes' observations came after a recent meeting with Saul Bronfeld, chairman of the board of directors of the Tel Aviv Stock Exchange. He told Federation donors that he came away from that encounter with "a new appreciation of the extraordinary accomplishments made by this nation in the fields of biotechnology and the high-tech sector."
He also expressed great admiration for Israel's humanitarian response to global natural disasters, despite its internal security concerns.
Forbes also greeted guests at two dinner receptions that preceded the Major Gifts dessert reception, which he keynoted. One reception was hosted by Federation's Renaissance group, which sponsors the Philadelphia chapter of the national Ben Gurion Society, whose members make a minimum household gift of $1,000 to their local Federation annual campaign.
Renaissance chair Jason Cole announced a new initiative for young adults interested in forging deeper connections with Israel. This summer, Federation's Center for Israel and Overseas will host a unique summer mission to Israel for community members ages 25-35 -- the target population group for the Renaissance group and its Ben Gurion Society.
The mission, which will be heavily subsidized, is designed for people with a demonstrated interest in community service, Cole said, noting that all applicants will be asked to submit an essay and will be interviewed by a panel of Federation volunteers.
"Those specially selected 40 participants will pay just $360 per person, which includes airfare, hotel, food and the entire mission itinerary," said Cole.
He explained that the impetus for the trip came from the Federation-commissioned 2009 "Jewish Population Study of Greater Philadelphia," which found that 35 percent of Jewish Philadelphians under the age of 40 reported having "no attachment" or "very little attachment" to Israel.
"We hope that by taking more people to Israel and giving them hands-on experiences with our Jewish homeland," said Cole, "we will help them to develop strong attachments to Israel."
Event Ends on Optimistic Note
At the Leadership Gifts dinner, 12 new donors were welcomed into Federation's Legacy Society.
Federation President Leonard Barrack expressed high praise "for these philanthropic individuals and families who have made permanent endowed gifts of $100,000 or more."
The generosity of the dozen Society newcomers resulted in an additional $4.5 million for the Federation Endowments Corporation.
This tally added to the festive mood of the 2011 campaign kick-off event, during which campaign director Mark Fishman announced $2.6 million from those in attendance.
Forbes ended his address on an optimistic note. While he acknowledged the current global economic turbulence, he reassured his audience that "we will move forward here in the United States and Israel to a better, more prosperous society."
Citing historical precedent surrounding economic downturns and recoveries, Forbes predicted that renewed prosperity will "create an environment where peace is possible."
Co-chairs for the evening were Caroline Kallman and Keith Joffe; Sue and Ronald Panitch; Jayne and Ronald Perilstein; Sherrie Savett and Robert A. Rovner; Bethany and J. Brett Studner; and Phyllis and Darren Sudman. The event was made possible by the generosity of sponsors Blank Rome LLP; El Al Israel Airlines; Canada Dry Delaware Valley; Sterling Trustees; and Helzberg Diamonds.