scene this week

At Jaffa Institute’s 40th anniversary gala, Herzog warns of ‘fateful hour’

The gala raised just over $1 million for the social welfare Institute’s programming.

On Tuesday, under a ceiling of TV screens beaming the logo of the Jaffa Institute, the nonprofit educational and social welfare organization hosted a gala so large it required three staff members armed with maps to help the 1,100 guests locate their correct seat out of more than 100 tables in an event space near Ben Gurion Airport. 

The scope of the event was a sign of how much the organization has grown since it was founded 40 years ago with $50,000, raised from 25 people on a young leadership mission from the Jewish Federation of Philadelphia. The evening, which featured Israeli President Isaac Herzog and a performance by singer-songwriter Hanan Ben Ari, raised just over $1 million for the institute’s programming.

Herzog, who opened the gala, used the speech to air a warning about the state of Israel’s political debate. Recent weeks have seen mass protests of the judicial reforms proposed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government, which would significantly limit the power of the Supreme Court. 

“I am very worried about what’s happening in Israeli society, we are at a fateful hour,” Herzog said. “I am a great believer in the perpetuity of Israel and its strength, and [of] the incredible people in the nation of Zion, but we all need to take responsibility for what we have built here, to defend the ability to live here together, to be able to argue without, God forbid, descending into places where we don’t want to be.” 

The Jaffa Institute has an annual budget of more than $10 million and runs more than 40 programs serving 9,000 people per year — through food distribution, after-school programs, homes for at-risk youth, mobile science labs for under-resourced schools and social programming for the elderly. The organization receives a third of its funding from the Israeli government, a third from Israeli donors and a third from foreign donors.

David Portowicz and Ze’ev (Zonik) Shaham founded the organization in 1982 to try to break the cycle of poverty impacting children living in Jaffa. Since then, the organization has expanded to serve people in south Tel Aviv and cities including Bat Yam, Holon, Kiryat Malachi and Beit Shemesh. 

“When I started 40 years ago, 95% of our funding came from abroad,” Portowicz said in a speech. “But today, two-thirds of it comes from within Israel, and that’s incredible.” 

Last year, more than 6,000 volunteers assisted with the organization’s programs, including one in which they served more than 80,000 hot meals at 21 after-school centers to provide kids with a framework after the school day ends. The organization also provided 280 scholarships for higher education, ran summer camps for 700 kids and supported 250 Holocaust survivors, among dozens of other services.

The gala honored several supporters individually, including real estate developer Joseph Dayani, chairman of the Joseph Samuel Group in Monaco. Dayani spoke about growing up in Israel and being 10 years old when his father died. He and his brother were sent to a boarding school much like the ones that the Jaffa Institute runs. Dayani said without the school, which was run by the Jewish Agency for Israel, he never would have achieved what he has today. 

“If you’ve got the right tools and the right introduction to young children, there’s hope, if you don’t let them fall into poverty,” he said. “These kids are the future of Israel, the future of the Jewish nation, and what we invest in them now the country and society will benefit from in the future.”

The gala also honored the Meitar Law Offices for their support and pro-bono work on behalf of the Jaffa Institute through the years. Like Herzog, Meitar partner Dan Geva used his speech to express his concern over current events in Israel. Geva said his firm found meaning in supporting the women of the Jaffa Institute’s Welfare to Wellbeing project, which helps chronically unemployed women with vocational training and therapy, with the hope of giving them tools to rebuild their lives. 

“Even if Israel continues the process that has already begun, clipping the wings of democracy we’ve seen happening these days, we will continue to support the women,” said Geva. “We see in them, and in the people in the community, the real agents of change in society. They create a change in their families, in their community, and in our country, and the country needs that right now, especially these days.”

Herzog also stressed the importance of setting a good example within the family in his speech. 

“Our actions influence our children,” he said. “When we yell instead of speaking, our children yell instead of speaking. When we push people away instead of drawing them close, our children push people away instead of drawing them close. When we raise a hand to strike someone, our children also raise a hand to strike. That’s why we must continue investing in education, to believe in the future and never give up.”