By Larry Gordon
On Tuesday of this week, we had the opportunity to attend what we can now refer to as a good old-fashioned organizational dinner for the benefit of Chai Lifeline at Pier 60 on the West Side waterfront in the city.
It was a spectacular event, and as we made our way through the reception I thought back to last year, when organizers had no choice because of the status of the pandemic but to make all their functions virtual or to have them just not take place at all.
As a medium that promotes these important events, I wondered last year, as these major events took place without the physical presence of supporters, whether these dinners, which have been a mainstay in our communities for decades, would ever be the same again.
After all, while I thought that perhaps the day would soon come when we could safely return to the dinner circuit, would anyone want to get dressed up and spend an evening at a table with ten other people and listen to speeches?
After enjoying the Chai Lifeline dinner on Tuesday, we are also looking forward to the return of the Ohel dinner this coming Sunday at the Marriott Marquis in Times Square. The Chai Lifeline dinner featured a display of the culinary brilliance of Wolfgang Puck and a musical performance by Ishay Ribo.
We need to understand that this is not just about a night out with friends and likeminded people. These two organizations are among the leading groups that impact on Jewish life in a most profound and caring fashion.
To gain entry to either of these two dinners one must furnish proof of having received at least one dose of a COVID vaccine. I don’t believe any of us know how long procedures like this will last, but considering the progress we have made in a little more than a year, perhaps a year from now things will be appreciably improved and will hopefully be closer to real freedom from today’s necessary regulations and restrictions.
There were advantages and disadvantages to online annual dinner events. One of the great advantages was that thousands of people the world over were able to participate at the same time. One particular event that is usually well-attended is the dinner for the Yeshiva of Greater Detroit. Last year, it was an exclusively online event that was attended by over 150,000 people. By our old or pre-pandemic standard, that’s a lot of sushi.
Still, despite the vaccine and the loosening of restrictions, some major events this year are staying virtual. It could be that they are playing it super-safe or just did much better and attracted larger numbers of attendees by presenting their programs exclusively online. Earlier this year, Emunah held their annual dinner exclusively online, and in the near future Yeshiva University will be doing the same thing.
In case you were not aware, this time of year is generally regarded as organizational dinner season. It is usually a short season that gets interrupted by Thanksgiving weekend and then resumes for a few weeks before coming to a conclusion about a week before the non-Jewish holiday season at the end of the year.
One of the most anticipated annual dinner events was the one for the benefit of the Bet El community in Israel. For at least two decades, this was one of the most highly attended and important events on the Jewish community social calendar. The prime moving force behind the Bet El dinner for all those years was Jean and Eugen Gluck of Queens. Eugen’s personal and business contacts along with his high energy and charisma were singlehandedly responsible for drawing more than 1,500 people to come out and support the yeshiva at Bet El each and every year.
But in the last two years, first Jean Gluck passed away and you could sense that things had changed. Then about a year later, at age 92, Mr. Gluck passed away. That was followed by the pandemic and the suspension of this great annual event.
The dynamic duo responsible for the success of the Bet El extravaganzas was former MK Yaakov “Ketzaleh” Katz and his second-in-command, Baruch Gordon.
On Monday, I texted Baruch Gordon to remind him that in years gone by this was dinner season for Bet El. I asked him how he was feeling about the changes. He said he was in the Miami airport, having met with donors and supporters of Bet El, and was headed for New York where the schedule called for much of the same.
I asked him if he thought there would ever be another Bet El dinner, and he said that he would not discount the possibility of smaller dinner events in various communities that are supportive of Bet El. For now, though, he is meeting with donors and working the internet to reach supporters around the world.
We are at a transitional point in our response to the pandemic as far as significant public gatherings are concerned. As you can see, some of the regularly scheduled dinners are resuming while others are remaining virtual for now. A few weeks ago, I attended an all-out, full-blown wedding with no compromises and no sign of corona restrictions except for a person at the door asking those entering if they were vaccinated or not. However, no one was asked to present ID or CDC cards.
It was a festive celebration with great dancing and dinner that stretched for hours with friends you do not get to see on a regular basis. This was contrasted with a year or so of weddings and other simchas that we just did not go to, especially in Lakewood, because it was just too far and time-consuming. And that is contrasted with the several weddings that we did attend, a few of them at the height of the New York-mandated restrictions. The three that come to mind were quite an interesting ordeal. At two of them, we had to enter the relatively well-known venues through an unlit back entrance where the garbage dumpsters are lined up right next to the spot where kitchen employees generally step out for a break or a smoke.
At first it was shocking because inside the halls there was a regular set-up, a band playing, a bar dispensing drinks, and plenty of sushi.
Now we learn as a result of New York State Attorney General Letitia James’s report on ex-governor Andrew Cuomo that his cracking down on shuls and yeshivas and possibly locations where religious ceremonies take place, like weddings, was completely capricious. In other words, the former governor, who was once celebrated and even respected in the Jewish community, was targeting Jews and Jewish institutions. You know what that is called.
It seems that after the difficulties and setbacks of the last 20 months, we would all prefer to flick some kind of switch and just return to the way things once were before the global onset of the pandemic. Unfortunately, things just do not work that way. A person can trip and sprain an ankle or break a leg in a fleeting moment, but it takes weeks and sometimes months to heal and return to normal life. What we are experiencing today may be a communal version of limping back to the way we once were.
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