This year’s national gala of the Friends of the Israel Defense Forces was a radical departure from previous occasions. A change of venue on Oct. 17 brought us to the always hectic commercially-centric New York Hilton, instead of the laid-back luxurious Waldorf Astoria, a society favorite since its founding in 1931. (The Waldorf closed in 2017 for a two-year transformation into mostly condo apartments.)
The program too has undergone a fundamental change. In past years the emcee would introduce a grieving mother whose tearful story of losing a son or daughter in an enduring battle against terrorists made for a heart-rending moment that opened tear ducts and loosened wallets even further.
Bringing forth the bereaved mother of a fallen soldier, which tugged at your kishkes, was a most effective way for the FIDF to raise millions for their programs, which included academic scholarships for combat veterans, support for Lone Soldiers, aid for families of fallen soldiers, and construct recreational facilities.
This year’s inspiring event, which featured a dazzling military performance of music and dance, raised more than $32 million for the well-being of IDF soldiers.
A top IDF official was always recruited as the star speaker. Lt. Gen. Gadi Eisenkot, chief of the general staff, was slated to appear, but it was not to be. He was needed back home to deal with an escalation of rocket fire from Gaza that tore into a house in Beersheba.
Dinner chairman Peter Weintraub, a Reform rabbi from Westchester and an electrifying emcee, was able to substitute a former chief of staff, Brig, Gen. Tal Kelman, who’s the head of the strategic division of the IDF planning directorate, to be the key speaker.
Kelman was joined by Cpt. Or, the first female commander of a Patriot Battery. She’s credited with using an advanced air defense system to shoot down a Syrian plane that penetrated Israeli airspace in July. You don’t mess with an Israeli female soldier.
Among other soldiers who came from Israel to mingle with the 1,200 guests at the dinner were Maj. Or Ben-Yehuda who served in the Caracal Battalion, one of the only coed military units in the world. In 2014 she single-handedly fought off a group of terrorists. She was accompanied by her mother, Prof. Dina Ben-Yehuda who served in the 1973 Yom Kippur War.
In the audience was Dr. Ruth Westheimer who vigorously applauded the heroism of Israel’s female fighters. Before she was a sex therapist she was a sniper in the Haganah during the 1948 War of Independence.