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Celebrating Tel Aviv University

“Jews can survive persecution. Jews can’t survive indifference,” said 90-year old Bernard Lewis, an honoree at the June 14 Tel Aviv University Jubilee dinner at the Waldorf-Astoria. Lewis, who is Cleveland E. Dodge professor of Near Eastern studies, emeritus, at Princeton University and visiting fellow of Tel Aviv University’s Sackler Institute of Advanced Studies, is an author whose most recent book is “From Babel to Dragomans: Interpreting the Middle East” (Oxford University Press, 2004). Citing a recent listing of the 500 best universities in the world, Lewis beamed: “Of the 200 in the Middle East, the top seven were Tel Aviv, Haifa, Hebrew, Bar-Ilan, Weizmann, Technion and Ben-Gurion. Lest it be labeled as Jewish plotting,” Lewis continued, “the committee that made this [evaluation] was from the People’s Republic of China Academy!” Honoree Dov Lautman, Delta Galil Industries Ltd.’s chairman of the board and CEO, said: “I’m a schmatte maker. Hope you are all comfortable with your underwear.” Ambassador Dan Gillerman lauded Lautman, who has endowed a number of TAU programs and helped further peaceful coexistence between Jews and Arabs, as “having single-handedly made Israel a better place.”

Also touting TAU — with 30,000 students, 100 departments and Israel’s largest medical research center — were Consul General Arye Mekel and Ambassador Daniel Ayalon (a 1981 TAU alumnus). In his introduction of honoree Michael Steinhardt, Ayalon offered an anecdote relating to Henry Kissinger’s 1970s shuttle diplomacy that brought the then U.S. secretary of state to Israel and to the Jerusalem zoo. Astonished to see a lion and a lamb in the same cage, the zoo director assured Kissinger, “Every day we change the lamb.” TAU’s president, Itamar Rabinovich, offered a Turkish variant of the lamb-lion scenario: “Next time you are invited to dinner, make sure you are not on the menu.”

Praised for his initiative in enabling 100,000 students to travel to Israel via Birthright Israel, Steinhardt, managing member of Steinhardt Management LLC and chairman of TAU’s international board of governors, envisioned “a Jewish community living in a Renaissance. Our day schools would rival the country’s best private schools in their academic excellence, and Jewish camps would flourish instead of attracting less than 20% of their eligible cohort. And how about we develop new mechanisms to reach out to the 40% of Jews in America who no longer come into any Jewish institutions at all? Imagine a new articulation of Judaism — a common Judaism that respects the secularity of most Jews while emphasizing values that have stood the test of time. No longer would Jewish tradition and secular values be incompatible. The best of both worlds would be celebrated and integrated so that Judaism would be meaningful and relevant once again.”

“Each generation produces one Renaissance man,” dinner chair Harvey Krueger noted when he introduced keynote speaker James Wolfensohn, chairman of Wolfensohn & Company, LLC. Having served as the ninth president of the World Bank and as special envoy for the 2005 Gaza disengagement, Wolfensohn focused his statistics-numbing address on “the world of 2050,” when “eight of the world’s 9 billion people will be in developing countries.” He cited several angst raisers, noting that “China will be the largest economy in the world in 2040” and that “the population of India will probably double in five years.” In concluding, he mused pensively: “I’m not sure how many Jews there will be in that world.”

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On June 13, the day before the TAU gala, the annual Aleph Society Dinner was held at the St. Regis Hotel. At the event, Wolfensohn engaged author and social critic Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz in a dialogue titled “Am I My Brother’s Keeper?” During the adversarial yet amicable exchange, Wolfensohn said he was “saddened” at how many classic Jewish sources of charity focus exclusively on the needs of the Jewish community. Steinsaltz responded: “We were fighting for our lives, not for our comforts. If we do not care for ourselves, nobody will.” However, he added that while “our primary concern should be for those closest to us, we also have an obligation to take pity on our broader human family.” Coincidentally, my tablemate at a recent dinner was a Jewish philanthropist who felt agita at the deep-pocket support of his fellow Jewish philanthropists for non-Jewish institutions — museums, arts, etc. “We’re always out there in disproportionate numbers on the world’s humanitarian barricades, but when it comes to funding Jewish education, museums, arts….?”

Der Yiddish Vinkl will return next week.

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