Jan 14, 2016

Alan Gross, Freed from Cuba, and Former Ambassador Dennis Ross Headline Sandler Family Major Gifts Event

An enthusiastic crowd of 350 of the Jewish Federation of South Palm Beach County’s top donors gathered at The Polo Club in Boca Raton on January 6, 2016 to enjoy a cocktail reception, an elegant dinner, and riveting speakers at this season’s annual Sandler Family Major Gifts Event. The evening celebrated Federation’s Major Donors, who contribute a minimum $10,000 to our Annual Campaign.

Click here to enjoy more photos from this important evening.

Palpable at the outset, the camaraderie, compassion and commitment continued to build throughout the evening. The inclusion of adult children and grandchildren of major donors through a new L’Dor V’Dor initiative added to the warmth and power of the event.

Linda Brodie, who co-chaired the evening with her husband, Don, and with Robin and Neil Baritz, welcomed the guests. With great warmth, she said, “I feel so fortunate to be part of this outstanding group. You truly put your values into action in caring for those in need, and in building our wonderful, growing Jewish community.

Brodie also acknowledged Phyllis and Harvey Sandler and their family, for whom the annual event has been aptly named. “The Sandler Family has set a shining example with their generosity and philanthropy,” she said.

The Federation’s Ketubah Society Hall of Fame posters were on proud display, and many members were present. These esteemed donors have each cumulatively contributed $1 million or more to the Federation. Anne Jacobson, the Federation’s Chair Designate, welcomed Barbara and Ted Wolk, and Debra and Jerry Kramer, to the prestigious society.

Etta Zimmerman, a former Federation Board Chair and a current Vice Chair, introduced her cousin, Alan Gross, who was freed only a year ago after five years of incarceration by Castro’s Cuba. She explained how Gross had spent 25 years, “traveling the globe to administer civilian foreign aid and promote democracy on behalf of private industry, non-government organizations and the U.S. Agency for International Development” before being arrested and wrongfully convicted of acts against the Cuban state and sentenced to 15 years in prison.

With poignancy and inspiration as well as humor, Alan Gross shared his harrowing experience, how he survived and was freed, and some life lessons learned. He told how he was packing to return home after working on a humanitarian project to improve wireless access for small communities across Cuba with special emphasis on Cuba's small Jewish community, when “four big guys” knocked on his door and took him away to the facility where he spent five mostly isolated years.

“For the first year, it was sensory deprivation, with no books, newspapers, TV, radio, pen or paper. Just bright fluorescent lights on 24 hours a day,” he said. After a while, he was able to call his wife every six weeks, and she visited after seven months. In the second year, he began to receive visits from US and other government officials. Eventually, in his two-day trial, “the prosecution called 22 witnesses, 18 of whom were unknown to me. They tried to get members of the Jewish community to speak against me but our people there held their ground. The defense called one witness.

In the third and fourth year, everything was the same to Gross - it was like Groundhog Day. Among the few things he credited for helping him survive and keep his sanity was remembering the miraculous part of his family that survived far worse in the Holocaust, and feeling “grounded by the belief” that he came from “strong stock.”

Gross said that while his tirelessly persevering lawyer and wife, bipartisan U.S. government officials, labor leaders and even Pope Francis helped free him, "Our Jewish communities' grassroots-to-the-top activism tipped the scales in the right direction for me. And these efforts were coordinated by Jewish Federations including this one, and their partners nationwide.”

"Federations touch our lives here, in Israel and around the world,” he said. “Who knew that donating to Federation is akin to paying a premium insurance policy? I'm glad I had that coverage when I needed it! Todah rabah. Thank you for helping restore my freedom."

“What an incredible message of faith, perseverance and hope shows the extraordinary power of the Jewish community to rally around one single Jew in distress,” said Larry Feldman, Federation Vice Chair, Campaign, who followed Gross at the podium. "Alan's story is our story — the story of a people who continue to hope, persevere and survive. And no one takes this sacred responsibility for one another more seriously than everyone in this room. While we are truly blessed to be here, we are humbled by our mission to help those who need us most – and how our major gifts can be the very difference between hunger and a hot meal, crisis and comfort, isolation and inspiration.

Feldman went on to lead a multimedia presentation of three further stories of the transformational power of help and hope made possible through the Federation’s support. Elderly Holocaust survivor, Penina, is happier, more nurtured and safer with two new caring friends through From March to Miriam. Developed right here, this program matches survivors with students and adult alumni of the March of the Living. A riveting video from the Israel Trauma Coalition brought home the vital importance of support for those whose lives have been disrupted by the violence of terror and war in our homeland. The guests also learned about local resident Ryan, who was diagnosed with autism early in life, and his mother, and how Federation’s support for programs has helped in his childhood and offers comfort in the promise of finding a place where he can be safe, cared for and loved when he enters his adult years.

Neil Baritz introduced former Ambassador Dennis Ross, a leading diplomat and expert in Middle East policy who served the Reagan, Bush and Clinton administrations. In a riveting presentation followed by an in-depth question and answer session, Ross shared some most timely insights and discussed aspects of his new book, Doomed to Succeed: The U.S.-Israel Relationship from Truman to Obama, which details the tense back-and-forth that has existed between the two countries for nearly three-quarters of a century. The guests received personally signed copies of the book.

Regarding ISIS, Ross said, “If we are going to defeat them, they have to lose territory and be discredited – discredited not by non-Muslims, but by Sunni Muslims, who would have to be engaged as our partners. You need to engage the Saudis, Egyptians, Qatar, Turkey - all the Sunni tribes to do this…. If we weren’t fighting them in the Middle East, they would come here to fight us, as that is part of their apocalyptic ideology.” Ross also urged pursuit of “a coherent policy on Syria that, again, involves bringing the Sunnis together as our allies,” though he has doubts that this will be accomplished.

As for the recent terror wave in Israel, he said it emerged because “nobody is paying attention to the Palestinians. The region and those concerned with it are focusing on the humanitarian catastrophe in Syria and the struggle with radical Islamists in the region. Two thirds of Palestinians want Abu Mazen to leave, and 80 percent believe the PA is corrupt.” He added, “The stabbings are being done by individuals mostly ages 18-25. They have no leader and no attachment to any organization - which is both good news and bad news.”

“The U.S administration first called this “a cycle of violence,” said Ross. “They couldn’t bring themselves to call it terror until it had gone on without interruption for two full weeks. They looked at the region through the lens of seeing Israel as a problem and not as a partner, but this mindset is not unique to this administration. Rather, it is part of the flawed assumptions regarding the region that have been embedded since the Truman administration.”

The “flawed assumptions” per Ross are: 1. If you distance from Israel, you gain with the Arabs. 2. If you don’t distance yourself from Israel, you lose with the Arabs. 3. If you solve the Israel/Palestinian problem you’ll fix the region.”

Despite these pervasive assumptions, Ross concluded on a positive note, “There is only one country in the region ruled by law, with separation of powers, an independent judiciary, freedom of speech and assembly, regular elections with accepted results.” He added, “The US and Israel share values, interests, and also threats. Israel is an island of stability in the region, and our relationship will become stronger over the next 10-20 years.”

Following the program, a few dozen of Federation’s younger major donors headed to a side room for an intimate “after party” with both speakers immediately following the event. These Emerging Jewish Philanthropists (EJP) enjoyed each other’s company and highly spirited, in-depth “Drinks and Intimate Conversation” on the Middle East and Cuba. EJP is chaired by Michele and Larry Blair.

Morrison, Brown, Argiz & Farra, LLC; Proskauer; and Steinberg Global Asset Management, LTD are the generous Major Gifts Division sponsors. The Boca Raton Observer is the event’s Exclusive Magazine Sponsor. Southern Wine & Spirits of America Inc. and Atlas Party Rentals were the event’s In-Kind Sponsors.

Click here to enjoy more photos from this important evening.

Photo captions top to bottom, L-R:
Don & Linda Brodie, Ambassador Dennis Ross, Alan Gross, Robin & Neil Baritz
Gary & Robin Rubin, David & Amy Ross, Harvey & Phyllis Sandler, Andrea & Larry Schnurmacher
Richard Steinberg, James Tisdale, Dennis Ross, Marjorie Horwin, Alan Gross, Al Gortz, Ken Pritzker
Larry & Diane Feldman
Linda & Ralph Behmoiras
Alan Gross, Etta Gross Zimmerman
Ted & Barbara Wolk, Debra & Jerry Kramer