I was privileged last night to both attend and serve as a volunteer for the first annual Times of Israel gala.

Held at the ritzy Waldorf-Astoria New York hotel on an evening when, after taking into the account the wind chill factor, translated into sub-zero temperatures, the gala featured a host of celebrities, both Israeli and American, and plenty of glamour on display, including supermodel Bar Refaeli, actress Gal Gadot, singer Miri Mesika, and so on.

But there was much substance beneath the glitz, as the gala paid tribute to families of fallen Israeli soldiers, including Max Steinberg, a lone soldier in the IDF who was inspired to make aliya following a Birthright Israel trip and who lost his life during Operation Protective Edge last summer. His parents, Evie and Max, announced a scholarship established in his name at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev. Especially moving were the tearful words of the widow of Druze police officer Zidan Saif, who was killed while responding to a terror attack at a synagogue in Jerusalem last November. Rimal spoke in fluent Hebrew about her husband’s life, and was joined on stage by the Chester family of New York, who named their own newborn son, Yaakov Zidan, after this hero. And don’t get me started on the video tribute to the three Israeli teenagers who were kidnapped and murdered last summer, along with clips depicting their inspiring, impossibly strong mothers.

But the highlight for me, at least, was hearing from Shimon Peres, Israel’s most recent past president and elder statesman, who was honored with the Lifetime Leadership Award. He engaged in a fireside-like chat with TOI editor-in-chief David Horovitz, who pressed him, albeit gently, about his views on the nuclear situation with Iran, anti-Semitism, and the future of the Jewish people.

“I do believe we shall make peace with the whole Arab world,” the eternally optimistic Peres said. “Iran, too, will change…. In 10-15 years, Iran will be out of water and thus out of ayatollahs, in my judgment.”

Regarding anti-Semitism, Peres said Jews should only immigrate to Israel because they truly want to live there. “Israel must remain a land of hope, not a land of fear.”

Peres refuses to dwell on the past, and has high hopes for younger generations of Jews. “Keep your children Jewish, that’s the best thing for our future,” he advised. He would have been heartened by the spirited group of Alpha Epsilon Pi (AEPi) brothers sitting at my table — who had apparently been sent to the dinner by the national Jewish fraternity — who rambunctiously rooted Peres on.

“Don’t pay attention to memory,” he said. “Every generation is a little bit better than the preceding one.”

Shimon Peres in conversation with David Horovitz at The Times of Israel Gala, the Waldorf Astoria, New York, February 15, 2015 (photo credit: Perry Bindelglass/Times of Israel)

After Peres’ talk, I had to excuse myself to perform my “official” volunteer duties, namely handing out Times of Israel gift bags, canvas satchels displaying the insignia of the IDF paratroopers, to departing guests — including former Haganah fighter and modern-day celebrity sex therapist Dr. Ruth Westheimer, whom I was thrilled to meet.

But Peres’ words — and his Don Quijote-like message of dreaming an impossible dream that only a “start-up” nation like Israel possesses — remained with me. I can only hope his sage advice inspires a new generation of young Israelis and Jews to continue the mantle of leadership.