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At the Waldorf-Astoria, Lasers –– and Lots of Love –– for Lily Safra

“I want [Lily] Safra’s life, her fire, her clothes, her friends,” said “Good Morning America” anchor and emcee Diane Sawyer to the International Sephardic Education Foundation’s 650 benefit guests at its April 19 gala. “Her circle of family and friends stretches across countries and continents,” Sawyer said of the petite philanthropic Safra, who with her late banker husband Edmond Safra, and Nina Weiner, founded ISEF in 1977. To date, ISEF has provided nearly 16,000 college and university scholarships, expanding its reach to recent Russian and Ethiopian students from urban neighborhoods and to towns in Israel where, it was reported, “one in three children grows up in poverty.”

The Waldorf-Astoria ballroom morphed into a rock concert setting, complete with laser lights and eardrum-challenging reverberation. Safra’s close friend, Sir Elton John — in a black-and-orange pantaloon ensemble, purple-tinted glasses, a bejeweled cross pendant and a single earring — sat down at the piano for a top-of-his-form gratis concert. His performance of some of his hits — “Your Song,” “Crocodile Rock” and a tearful rendition of “Sad Songs (Say So Much),” which he said was “the last… I recorded with Ray Charles” — got the audience to its feet. When he sang “Candle in the Wind,” the sing-along crowd — including a few ecstatically swept-away women — lifted aloft the decorative table candles.

Whereas most benefits auction jewels, trips or even a chance to dine with a celebrity, ISEF put up for bid “Science Enrichment Programs,” “Adopt a Ph.D. student studying abroad” and “Care for Combat Soldiers.” The $1.2 million raised that evening included 43 bids of $2,000 each, which were used to give students computers.

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At UJA-Federation of New York’s Diamond, Jewelry, and Watch Division’s April 20 dinner at Hilton New York, Ernest Michel (a survivor of concentration camps and death march who eventually rose to his past and final UJA-Federation position, executive vice president and CEO, presented the Humanitarian Excellence Award to Gedalio “Gerry” Grinberg and his family. This was a different Grinberg from the one I’ve seen honored at other industry dinners, where he was lauded for his innovative management, marketing skills and for Movado Group’s support of the arts.

Cuban-born Grinberg stated: “I Love this country. We can love Israel and America at the same time. [My children] carry the same commitment to the Jewish people as my wife, Sonia, and I.… Ernie [Michel] and I are of a generation of romantic youth… for whom the creation of a Jewish state… was the answer to antisemitism.… Never again will we be victims of discrimination and hate…. Israel’s only friend is the USA and the American people.” The event also honored Mary Forté, president and CEO of Zale Corporation.

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Internationally renowned artist Aliza Olmert was feted at the April 21 reception for her visually and intellectually stimulating exhibition, “Tikkun,” at the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion Museum. Among her fans in attendance were husband Ehud Olmert (former mayor of Jerusalem), Marion and Elie Wiesel, Ann and Ken Bialkin, Harold Tanner (newly nominated chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations) and the college’s president, Rabbi David Ellenson.

Ed Glass, founding chair of the now-defunct New York-Israel Cultural Cooperation Commission, expounded on Olmert’s choice of broken eggshells — a metaphor for life — as the thematic motif: “Aliza takes this incredibly rich symbol and adds a powerful human intervention — the element of tikkun, repairing the broken shell, mending the injury” of birth. What patience, time and skill it must have taken to string the many eggshell montages together, skewer them with safety pins, wire in various settings and permutations. I suspect I may never again crack an egg without a flashback to her multi-varied symbolic implications. It’s an exhibit that needs to be seen.”

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In idiomatic English, with humorous asides about his love for the Yankees and about his daughters’ surprise that McDonald’s exists outside Japan, Nobutaka Machimura, Japan’s minister for foreign affairs, addressed the Japan Society-sponsored April 29 luncheon at the Waldorf-Astoria on the theme of “Japan’s Global Strategy and the Japan-U.S. Global Partnership on the 60th anniversary of the End of World War II.” The emphasis was on Japan’s humanitarian role abroad, its friendship with the United States, and hope for a cooperative China-Japan-Korea effort for peace and prosperity. A postspeech question (by a Japanese guest), apropos Japan “not acknowledging its historic role in World War II,” elicited a translator-aided response that compensation was made on a “state-to-state basis” and, “unlike Germany,” there were no personal reparations. However, “There were legitimate apologies and expressions of remorse.”

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The Israeli and German cultural consuls jointly sponsored Anjelika Melodies, a May 5 concert of lullabies from around the world. The Israeli consulate’s director of cultural events, Renée Schreiber, described lullabies as “offering healing throughout the world.” She noted with regret the absence of Israeli Consul General Arye Mekel, who at that moment was in Auschwitz with the March of the Living. Germany’s deputy consul general, Hans-Dieter Stell (who’d had a three-and-a-half-year posting in Tel-Aviv), said that the 60th anniversary of the end of World War II also signified Germany’s “liberation from dictatorship.”

Mezzo-soprano Tessa Lang and tenor Johann Schwaiger’s eclectic program included “That’s an Irish Lullaby,” Franz Schubert’s “Ave Maria” and “Eli Eli,” words and music by Hannah Senesh. German-born Schwaiger also performed “Oyfn Pripetchok,” which he articulated beautifully in Yiddish. The wide-awake audience at Columbia Artists Management, Inc.’s CAMI Hall applauded the talented husband-wife duo.

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