Over 2,400 arrived to show their solidarity with the people of Israel, and to support the pivotal work of United Jewish Appeal and its various partner agencies
By Daniel Koren - On Wednesday, September 10th, 2,400 members of Toronto's Jewish community came together in support of the State of Israel, and of Jews all over the world, by attending UJA's Annual Campaign Launch 2015.
As confirmed by the event's co-chair Sara Zagdanski, the response to the event was unprecedented, declaring it the largest campaign launch in UJA's storied history.
Considering the summer we've all had, this shouldn't come as too much of a surprise. In the face of anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism, which rose to levels we haven't seen since the Holocaust in the wake of Operation Protective Edge, Jews around the world, and certainly in Israel and here in Toronto, rallied together, united through prayer, and grew stronger, despite the global calls to destroy us.
And thus was exactly our mantra last night at the Sony Centre for Performing Arts, as a cadre of impassioned guest speakers urged us of our need to educate others of the global events currently transpiring, that we will not remain silent in the wake of growing anti-Jewish bigotry and discrimination, and that the need for supporting UJA and its various partner agencies is at an all-time high.
Only after our resolution, did we allow ourselves a little entertainment, from TV personality and celebrity icon Jay Leno who graced us all with his presence, and a one-hour set of hilarious one-liners and topical anecdotes.
The evening began with an address from 24-year-old Seth Frieberg, a Jewish Torontonian who, despite having everything he needed right here in his native land, joined the Israel Defense Forces in 2013 after graduating from Western University's Ivey School of Business. "I was honoured to serve as a paratrooper," Frieberg said. "My unit and the entire Israeli army were motivated to defend the Land of Israel, our homeland, the Israeli people, and the safety and freedom of Jews all over the world."
Naturally, he received a tremendous round of applause from the enthusiastic audience.
The evening continued in this trajectory, and while it certainly reflected on the somber months of July and August, there was also an inkling of hope that resounded with all of us. Co-chair of the event Joshua Charlat said it best: "Even in difficult times, our faith teaches us that there is always room in Jewish life for celebration."
Charlat spoke of the alarming rates of global anti-Semitism and what we can do to combat this growing movement, particularly through supporting United Jewish Appeal and its new campaign. He also noted that the City of Toronto, and "the city above Toronto," Vaughan, had each proclaimed the week of September 7 - 13 as UJA Week.
The Deputy Consul General of Israel for Toronto and Western Canada Irit Stopper then made her way to the podium, who spoke about Israeli innovation in various fields, and teaching our kids "tolerance and acceptance," as the "pillars of our Jewish faith."
Her sentiments where echoed by Alison Himel, Chair of UJA Women's Philanthropy, who recalled her trip to Israel during the operation, and also Israel's mayor of Sderot, Alon Davidi, who gave a stirring address on what this most recent war was like for the residents of the Southern Israeli city.
Since 2006, UJA has staunchly supported the people of Sderot, whether by sending aid or food, setting up programs to rehabilitate its residents, particularly during, and after, times of war, and doing everything they can to improve their quality of life.
With this in mind, Davidi referred to all of us here in Toronto who support UJA, Sderot's "brothers and sisters."
Through UJA's partnership with Sderot, he said, "we will answer Hamas" and let them know that "they can bomb us all the want, but they will never take our spirit."
Following Davidi, UJA 2015 Campaign chairs Andrea Cohen and David Matlow spoke about living in a country that has the most pro-Israel government in the world, before introducing the special guest who preceded Leno, acclaimed journalist Bret Stephens, a deputy editor with the Wall Street Journal and regular panelist on the Journal Editorial Report.
Stephens' address was truly the most animated. He spoke of Turkey's transformation from liberal nation to dictatorship, he spoke of the troubles facing the Middle East today, and he spoke of rising anti-Semitic and anti-Zionist rhetoric that has appeared on Western media outlets.
"It frightens me that Israel is accused of being the bad guy for this war," Stephens stated, noting that Israel agreed to all eleven ceasefire attempts while Hamas violated them all. "It frightens me that not a single Western journalist, save for an Indian TV reporter, captured Hamas sending rockets into Israel."
He also spoke, with dismay, that Western media outlets were reporting figures provided by the Hamas-run Palestinian Ministry of Health without doubting them. He mentioned how close we were to a pogrom in France when Jews were trapped in a synagogue surrounded by an angry mob, and of Palestinians in German who chanted "Jews to the gas."
The real problem, Stephens said, is that Israel is "besieged by real enemies and phony friends," mentioning the recent incident regarding a chaplain for Yale University who blamed Israel for the rise of anti-Semitism.
"He's not explaining anti-Semitism by doing this," Stephens said. "He's practicing it."
When reporters blame Israel, he continued, they ignore that one army is spending millions of dollars to decrease the amount of civilian causalities, with the other [Hamas] is encouraging civilian casualties. "Israel has spent 67 continuous years in a quest for peace, and have given up more land than any other country in history to do so," he added.
"It has the largest number of scientists and engineers per capita in the world," he said, and is a beacon for gay rights, women's rights, and human rights.
The response to Stephens' words were absolutely genuine. He was a tough act to follow.
Luckily for those in attendance, the act who would follow him was the one, the only, Jay Leno. During his last trip to the Holy Land, Leno commented that Israel was "the only democracy in the Middle East."
The moment Leno arrived on stage he went straight into shtick mode. He was not there to discuss Israel, Judaism or politics (that had been done a fair amount by then), but only to entertain the 2,400 members of Jewish Toronto who came to see him.
And entertain he did.
During his one-hour plus set, Leno cracked jokes ranging from a multitude of topics. He shared how he still has the same flip phone he purchased in 1999, made fun of Apple's new smartwatch, and ridiculed Americans for introducing "competitive eating" as a sport, but still hating soccer.
He talked of zoo monkeys who steal people's phones ("you should put them in movie theaters"), and how Obama care simply isn't getting the job done - "last time I got a prostate exam it was from a drone." He also introduced us all to a drug that combats a new disease called 'Restless Leg Syndrome,' the side effects of which include increased sexual appetite and gambling.
He seemed dedicated to this ridiculing Americans bit - ideal for any Canadian audience - commenting on American obesity ("when did meat become a condiment for other meat?" or "we're getting fatter while our TV's are getting skinnier" or "A new study says obesity is a disease, though I haven't seen anyone in Africa suffering from it") and how easy it was for him to get through Canadian customs.
He talked politics, religion, and pop culture, and he did it in true Jay Leno form: unadulterated, vivacious, and truly endearing. At the end, he was presented with a UJA jersey to thank him for his support of the UJA campaign 2015, which has already raised the sum of $31.4 million from over 4,300 donors. Meanwhile, donations to UJA's Israel Emergency Response have already passed the $5.6 million mark.
For everyone in attendance last night, UJA, and Jews across the world, thank you for your support to these critical causes. If you haven't yet, visit United Jewish Appeal now to donate to UJA's Campaign 2015.
It's for a truly worthy cause.
Originally published on Shalom Life.