Jewish charities are re-thinking their plans for gala fundraisers after the events of Oct. 7

The Negev dinner in Toronto, November, 2023

The fall, just after the Jewish holidays end, is a busy season for Jewish non-profits when many organizations schedule galas and fundraisers.

But the Hamas attacks of Oct. 7 which killed 1,200 Israelis, has forced charities to re-think their biggest annual events or postpone them indefinitely.

The Jewish National Fund (JNF) had its flagship event, the Negev Dinner, scheduled for Nov. 12. The event was set to honour philanthropist Harley Mintz with proceeds supporting the Climate Solutions Prize and the JNF Israel Resilience Fund. For entertainment, the Barenaked Ladies were scheduled to perform.

“Once the war started, we had to decide whether to have the event at all. We made that decision quickly. We knew it was important for Jews to gather during this time,” said Jeff Springer, JNF’s executive director.

Springer and his team realized the dinner was no longer going to be a party so it wouldn’t be appropriate for the Barenaked Ladies to perform. Springer said the group was very generous in waiving cancellation fees and returning their deposit. (The change of plans wasn’t publicly announced amidst a wave of online harassment directed at the non-Jewish performers over the booking.)

At the last minute, JNF was able to secure Michael Oren, former Israeli Ambassador to the United States as the keynote speaker.

The charity also arranged to bring in two members of the security team at Kibbutz Re’im to tell the story of how they prevented a massacre at their kibbutz when terrorists invaded on Oct. 7.

“We didn’t book their tickets until Wednesday, and they flew in on Thursday. It was crazy,” Springer said.

Also at the last minute, the team arranged for singer Jeff Madden to perform “Bring Him Home” from the show Les Misérables. A montage of photos of the hostages played on a screen while Madden sang.

“There was not a dry eye in the place,” Springer said.

The dinner, one of the largest events in the Jewish philanthropic calendar with 1,100 attendees, became a solidarity event with some of the original plans remaining.

“As an Israel organization, it’s still important to raise funds. We raised money for the war during this event. More so, we felt that members of the community during these difficult times want to be together, they don’t want to be at home watching CNN. It’s an important time for us to gather and show our support for Israel so we did,” Springer said.

The event raised $2.4 million, “a bit more” than was expected, Springer said.

The Jerusalem Foundation and Friends of Simon Wiesenthal also decided to go ahead with their planned flagship events this fall.

The Jerusalem Foundation was set to have their first gala since COVID and were intending on honouring the late Julia Koschitzky. They planned to bring in the musicians from the Jerusalem Gala of Dance.

“As soon as the war started, we knew we weren’t going to have a gala. A lot of us felt that Julia was a great leader to us when Israel was in crisis so we (decided) it would be right to do it with a different atmosphere,” said Nomi Yeshua, executive director of the Jerusalem Foundation.

The gala is set to go ahead on Nov. 30 at the Park Hyatt Hotel and will be in solidarity with Jerusalem and Israel. The live music has been cancelled and while Koschitzky’s life will still be honoured, former President Reuven Rivlin and Jerusalem Mayor Moshe Lion will now come to speak.

Yeshua said it is important to hold the event to raise money for the critical needs in the city. Jerusalem is sheltering more than 20,000 refugees from southern and northern Israel and the funds will go towards emergency programming in Israel.

Friends of Simon Wiesenthal Center for Holocaust Studies also decided to proceed with their primary event, Spirit of Home, on Nov. 2. In addition to featuring actress Helen Mirren, Israeli Special Envoy for Combatting Antisemitism, Michal Cotler-Wunsh, was invited to speak about the situation in Israel.

The evening also honoured York, Toronto and Peel police forces for their work in keeping the Jewish community safe. More than 1,250 people attended the evening.

Not every charity decided to go ahead with their events. Reena, a non-profit that supports children and adults with developmental disabilities, postponed a gala that was scheduled for November to commemorate its 50th year.

“While it’s wonderful to celebrate the achievement and contributions we’ve done for the community, we decided it’s not the time for a full-on-black tie celebration. We made the decision to postpone to a later date because no one was in the mood to celebrate,” said Sharon Magor, marketing and communications manager for Reena.

Magor said the gala will likely be held in the spring, but it will depend on the situation in Israel.

Aside from the gala, Reena conducts an education mission every year for stakeholders and politicians to learn about developmental services and agencies in Israel.

“Since the war started, we’ve had three virtual meetings with our Israeli counterparts and people from Ontario, including politicians and their colleagues, to hear about the challenges that Israeli agencies are going through,” he said.

Mount Sinai Hospital in Toronto also decided to postpone its gala that was intended to celebrate 100 years of care.

“Given the recent events in Israel and the region, we have carefully considered the situation and believe it is not currently appropriate to proceed with the event as planned,” a representative for the Mount Sinai Foundation said in a written statement.