on the scene

Israel Cancer Research Fund strikes ‘balancing act’ with war-time gala

Event largely went on as scheduled, though some Israeli speakers took part virtually, unable to make the trip to New York because of the conflict

“Cancer doesn’t care that there’s a war going on.” That was the sentiment echoed throughout the Israel Cancer Research Fund’s Tower of Hope gala, held Thursday night at the Harvard Club in Midtown Manhattan. 

The annual event was scheduled well before Oct. 7 – the day on which the most deadly massacre of Jews in a single day since the Holocaust took place in southern Israel. “We didn’t know what to expect in planning our gala right in the height of all of this going on,” Alan Herman, ICRF national director of advancement, told eJewishPhilanthropy

Herman said there were worries that attendees would cancel due to security concerns around staging an event supporting Israel or because a solidarity rally for the hostages kidnapped by Hamas was taking place at the same time blocks away in Times Square. But as it turned out, “we got an even bigger turnout,” Herman said, “people want to do whatever they can to support Israel.” About 200 people attended the gala, raising more than $500,000 for cancer research. Due to the size of the venue, Herman said they had to cap the number of attendees. “I think we probably could have gotten at least 20% higher.”

The gala also demonstrated the complicated position that organizations whose efforts are not directly involved in war relief efforts find themselves in: Remaining dedicated to their cause while also recognizing that there are other pressing, if not more important, needs at the current moment.

“One of the biggest things we are proud of at ICRF is that we undoubtedly want to make sure we continue to sustain our mission,” Herman said. “We also want to be mindful to the overall community and understand our place. There are organizations that need money, like Friends of the Israel Defense Forces, and [they] should be putting out the SOS. So we’re trying to figure out the right balancing act while making sure that our research continues, and so far we are walking that line. Our mission is to support the best cancer research in Israel and the world. Our mission also allows us to help sustain the Israeli economy and provide for research jobs and things that must happen and continue to happen.”

Even as cancer research was the focus of the gala, the impact of the war was palpable throughout the evening. The event’s honoree, professor Avram Hershko, an ICRF-funded scientist awarded Israel’s first Nobel Prize in chemistry, had planned to attend in person but decided that, given events, he would remain in Israel with his family. Hershko instead gave remarks in a prerecorded video. A photograph was displayed of professor Ariel Munitz, who less than two weeks ago was researching cancer in his lab at Tel Aviv University. Now, both Munitz and his daughter are serving in the Israel Defense Forces, among the 360,000 reservists that Israel’s military called up to fight Hamas. 

The gala was hosted by New York-based social media influencer Elizabeth Savetsky, who uses her platform of nearly 300,000 followers to support Israel and Judaism. Savetsky said that it was a strange feeling to put on makeup and dressy attire for the night, as the past two weeks have “felt like sitting shiva.” 

“We are here because we want to cure cancer, or at the very least transform it from a death sentence into an inconvenience,” Savetsky, who was visiting Israel for the High Holy Days with her husband and three children when war broke out, said at the event. “The answer to that is cancer research. All aspects of life [since Oct. 7] have been turned upside down in every possible way. People quickly pivoted in their response. Despite this unfathomably challenging situation all Israelis are facing, ICRF scientists remain focused on our beloved Israel prevailing while not losing sight of finding a cure for cancer.” 

Shawn Weinstein has chaired ICRF’s young professionals committee since 2017. The 38-year-old told eJP that he got involved with the organization after moving to New Jersey following a stint in Israel playing professional basketball. “I wanted to stay close to Israel and everyone I know is directly affected by cancer or knows someone who is,” Weinstein said, noting that his sister is a breast cancer survivor and his grandmother died from the disease. 

When war broke out between Israel and Hamas, Weinstein said a thought crossed his mind that the young professionals committee would see a decrease in participation, speculating that donors might prioritize emergency aid to soldiers and terror attack victims. Instead, Weinstein observed a “heartwarming” turnout at the gala. “Everyone is rallying together to show our resilience and hope for Israel. There is a huge need for different funds to go to different areas, and we’re still going to push forward in the fight for Israel and for cancer research. This is one of those moments in time where everyone comes together,” he said. 

Herman noted that galas are usually the entry point for new donors. He said it is too early to tell whether funding will be impacted by the war. “In December we will be able to better tell what the true impact is when people have a better idea of what the horizon of the war looks like. We count on a lot of end-of-year gifts. It’s hard yet to give definitive answers. It would be safe to assume that with loyal supporters of ours who believe deeply in Israel, some are going to give more among a bigger portfolio of charities and some might scale back a little. All in all, it’s averaging out the way we need it to be.” 

ICRF does not work directly with victims of Hamas’ massacre. Still, like everyone in Israel, its staff were personally affected by the attacks and the ongoing war. Several researchers have been called up for or enlisted in reserve duty in the IDF.

Herman said that cancer research projects often take many years. A disruption in funding can wipe out experiments that have been in the works for five or more years. “We are making sure that no matter what is on the horizon in Israel, that this work can continue. We owe it to the researchers [in the IDF] that they know that when they return from defending Israel, they don’t have to think about leaving Israel because there’s not the proper pipeline for them to do the research there. They are there for us. They need to know that we are there for them.”