By Larry Gordon

The dinner is over, so I guess that means that it is time for dessert. It is fundraising dinner season, but this year–courtesy of Hurricane Sandy–many institutions and organizations find themselves limping into the process instead of moving ahead at full throttle.

The robustness of a dinner campaign and then the dinner itself is usually a good barometer of an organization’s standing in the community it serves. A dinner event is both a tribute to its honorees as well as an opportunity to pay homage to the vitality of an organization, yeshiva, or institution. For many, the annual dinner is the high point of a year’s worth of work.

As I’ve chronicled here, my wife and I were two of the honorees earlier this month at the 18th annual Chabad of the Five Towns dinner. We had a lot of fun and raised some money for the organization, but through the entire process I wasn’t really comfortable because, believe it or not, we really do not enjoy being the focus of attention.

But we did it anyway because we understood clearly that it wasn’t about us but about the group–the rabbi and the rebbetzin and the personal self-sacrifice that is part and parcel of every waking moment of their days. I don’t know how they do it; all I know is that they do it with dedication, sincerity, and love.

So if you know that, then you probably also know that this dinner was originally supposed to take place on November 4, but then Hurricane Sandy happened at the end of October and no one was in the mood for a dinner or to celebrate anything.

Even if one so desired, it was impossible to have a dinner, because most of the community edifices had sustained water damage or wind damage or both, and many homes as well as facilities where these dinners are held were without power for an inordinate amount of time. In the case of the Chabad dinner, November 4 was out of the question because not only did the Sephardic Temple in Cedarhurst lose power, but parts of the street that it is located on, Branch Boulevard, had collapsed. So no cars, no lights, no food–no dinner.

Some resourceful thinking quickly switched the date to December 16. But our schedule said that we were going to be in Israel on December 16 and not returning until the 19th or 20th. By then the dinner was supposed to have been long behind us and something to reflect upon. So after deliberating for a while on whether to change our schedule because of the dinner, we adjusted the itinerary accordingly.

Frankly, I have to say that I was advocating not being at the dinner because of the schedule conflict. Actually, in the recesses of my mind I thought that it was a lucky break. But as is wont to occur in situations like this–especially when I am so certain of my position–my wife sees it the completely opposite way.

Believe me when I write that it was not simple to reschedule those flights on such short notice. El Al gave me a very difficult time, as it was a particularly busy season for them with an unusually high demand for seats. At one point I was actually rethinking all the plans and contemplating not going to Israel at all if I could not manage to secure a flight out of New York by a certain date. There I was one minute scuttling plans to be at the dinner and the next minute pondering canceling the trip to Israel. Well, as the reader knows, we were both in Israel and at the dinner, and baruch Hashem, it all worked out well.

Fortunately, the Chabad dinner was held as planned at the magnificent Sephardic Temple, but as this delayed dinner season advances it looks like others are thinking twice about their venues. I wholly understand that and think that it is a prudent and economically sound move to make. At one point shortly after the date of the Chabad dinner was changed, I advised the rabbi not to reschedule it. “You took your best shot and had good intentions,” I told Rabbi Zalman Wolowik. Nature and fate had other plans, I said. Just let it be and plan an even larger and greater dinner for next year.

Maybe that thought process possessed some elements of selfishness in it, considering that I was looking at the impossibility of being at the dinner on December 16. Actually, it was such a nice dinner that I am very pleased that he didn’t take what I was suggesting too seriously.

It has been an unusually wild and unsettling few months. It’s odd how things have occurred in a kind of structured sequence. First there were the ravages of Hurricane Sandy, which many in this and other communities are still grappling with. Then there was the eight-day Pillar of Clouds operation in Israel, during which missiles were landing in major cities, killing and injuring people as well as destroying many homes and properties. And then once that was over, we had to deal with the unfathomable tragedy that struck the country in Newtown, Connecticut.

With all those communal things taking place, along with numerous personal things that people have to deal with on a regular basis, how in the world are you supposed to squeeze an organizational dinner celebration into the mix?

But somehow we do that as well. Perhaps it is our ability to compartmentalize, or maybe we just have to use these extravaganzas as an opportunity for an escape of sorts.

An additional point that needs to be made, I think, is that these dinners are really not parties at which to whoop it up. These are necessary fundraising events for local, national, and Israel-based institutions that consistently look to us for material and other types of support. Sure, in the aftermath of the Sandy debacle the resources of the community had to be marshaled to allow people to rebuild and move back into their homes, and that continues to be done.

According to community people dealing with post-Sandy issues, the Five Towns and Far Rockaway alone are currently dealing with uninsured losses to people’s homes and property that exceed $25 million. To that end, a small group of major philanthropists from New York and elsewhere have stepped forward and committed to raising the money needed to deal with the looming deficit. So far $10 million has been banked. It is an extraordinary display of people stepping up and taking responsibility for others in their time of profound need.

I have wondered for a long time whether or not some kind of organizational dinner campaign could in some way be applied to deal with the over $15 trillion United States deficit. I know that we cannot have that kind of dinner limited to one venue. But what if we had some kind of a national dinner where people can attend in a virtual fashion online, and families–instead of being incessantly taxed–could step forward and make a voluntary contribution to help out America. It does not have to be limited to America and could even be a universal and global event. It could be billed “The Dinner of All Dinners,” or “The Bailing America Out Dinner,” or something like that.

The tug-of-war over whether a yeshiva or other dinner should be held within the four walls of its own institution, as Yeshiva Darchei Torah is doing this year and HALB has done for the last few years, goes on. A dinner needs to be compelling in order to accord appropriate honor to the honorees and, of course, attract people to attend. That’s why dinner producers need to constantly be on the lookout to feature something new and refreshing for their guests. Sometimes it’s the guest speaker, other times the location of the event, and so on.

The most interesting dinner I ever attended was about 20 years ago. I don’t recall which organization it was a benefit for, but the dinner itself was held in the furniture department of Bloomingdale’s. On display around this large department store floor was an array of dining-room tables and chairs. The guests were served dinner sitting at dining-room floor samples scattered around the room. No, I don’t know where the caterer prepared the food or how they served it hot. Maybe it was kept warm in the kitchen or appliance department. The point is that it was unique and extremely creative.

The main thing to remember is that there is an array of important dinners coming up over the next few weeks. They are not really about eating out or even showing up for a neighbor or friend. When you take away all the dressing and the niceties, they are about vital support for institutions that depend on us. They are opportunities for us all where both dinner and a higher calling are well served.

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