Numerous Gala Plans in Philly Altered by Pandemic

A still from PJDS’ video-to-come
A still from PJDS’ video-to-come
(Courtesy of PJDS)

Daniella Scruggs knew on March 8 that something was up.

Scruggs, the development director of HIAS PA, was set to meet with an older donor at Suburban Station, who canceled at the last minute, citing an aversion to mixing with a large crowd due to COVID-19. Right away, Scruggs saw the donor’s cancellation as the ominous sign that it was for HIAS PA’s upcoming Golden Door Awards, the organization’s annual gala.

If this donor over the age of 60 didn’t want to risk a one-on-one meeting, what did that mean for the April 29 gala? It was expected to draw hundreds to The Bellevue Hotel, many of them around the same age as the cautious donor. What was going to happen?

In the end, HIAS PA’s decision on whether to hold an in-person event was made by the implementation of social distancing restrictions that put an end to the notion. A virtual gala will be held in its place on April 29, featuring Executive Director Cathryn Miller-Wilson in a livestream and a slate of prerecorded videos honoring HIAS PA partners. Though many of the event sponsorships had already been submitted, some revenue is still expected to be lost.

HIAS PA is one of many local nonprofits dealing with the transformation of its annual gala, often a substantial revenue producer for such organizations.

Gratz College was planning to celebrate its 125th anniversary with CNN anchor Jake Tapper at the City Avenue Hilton on May 31; the Jack M. Barrack Hebrew Academy’s annual gala was set for the same venue, on March 25; and Perelman Jewish Day School’s annual gala was scheduled for May 20 at Har Zion Temple. All four galas have been transformed, in one way or another.

Though Gratz’s galas had been held at The Rosenbach and Congregation Rodeph Shalom in past years, this year’s gala was a return to the Hilton, where the event had been held for many years. The staff that planned the event back in the fall, according to Director of Institutional Advancement Naomi Housman, was quite pleased to have been so ahead of the game in booking the room and their big-name guest speaker.

The gala typically draws around 350 attendees, but with an anniversary number like 125, organizers hoped to attract even more. Invitations were sent to the school’s many international students, and hotel rooms were booked in advance.

By March 12, it was clear that party was probably off. Just a few weeks ago, Housman and Gratz thought they had found a replacement date for the live event, somehow avoiding the scheduling land mines of the holidays and, vis-a-vis Tapper, a presidential election.

But even the possibility of a winter gala seems distant already. In the meantime, Housman and the Gratz organizers are reaching out to as many constituents and donors as they can, trying to figure out how they would like to mark Gratz’s anniversary this year.

“Most likely, we’re going to do something that’s virtual, and we’re working to figure out what that is,” Housman said.

On the digital front, PJDS and Head of School Judy Groner are a step ahead. Its May 20 gala was set to honor “Voices of Leadership.” The gala, according to Groner, not only represents a significant chunk of the fundraising done by PJDS in a typical year, but serves an important social function for parents who choose to attend; PJDS has campuses in Wynnewood and Melrose Park, which makes for a wide geographic range of families.

Groner said that PJDS was hours away from printing invitations for the gala when it had to “press pause.” Rather than hope for an in-person event somewhere down the line, the administration decided to compile a video highlighting the successes of Virtual [email protected], the school’s digital learning plan, to be sent out on or near the original date of the event. This will be in addition to honoring the intended honorees.

“Our scope of understanding has changed, and the things that are really important rise to the top,” Groner said.

JBHA was perhaps in the toughest spot of all. Its 18th annual gala was expecting 400 to 500 attendees, and was all set to go on March 25. A typical JBHA gala, according to Chief Operating Officer and Chief Development Officer Alex Stroker, raises between $800,000 and $1 million. To lose the social benefits of the gala is one thing; to let that number take a hit, especially as the school anticipates a rise in the number of students who will require financial aid next school year, was a hard pill to swallow. But it had to be swallowed.

“Overarchingly, the safety and the security and health of our participants was
paramount,” Stroker said.

On April 7, JBHA sent out a digital edition of the ad book, along with a video featuring the honorees, George and Tracy Gordon, and their children. The email with the ad book and the video was sent out to more than 3,000 email addresses, and about 63% of recipients opened it, according to Stroker.

“We received an enormous number of really positive comments,” Stroker said.

[email protected]; 215-832-0740

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