Optimism at a Palm Beach fundraiser for Hillel


On Monday night, Hillel International held its Renaissance Society event, an annual gathering held in South Florida to honor donors of $1,000 or more to the organization’s central office. This year’s dinner took place at the Palm Beach home of New Yorkers Jane Goldman and Benjamin Lewis.

As the sun set over the west lawn of the sprawling mansion, its reflection glinting off the bay and the mansion’s pool lined by fountains of cascading water, about 80 donors, a handful of board of trustees and several members of Hillel’s board of governors mingled, snacking on exquisite fare. 

Make no mistake. Despite the stated minimum donation required, those in attendance have given millions more to local Hillel outposts at colleges across the country.

This was something of a bounceback event for Hillel. 

Many of those in attendance are snow birds — people who head to South Florida for the winter. Others are year-round residents of Palm Beach and other areas of South Florida. Almost all have deep connections to the region, which was especially hard hit by Hurricane Bernie.

Last year, when it came time for the annual event, many people were still reeling from Madoff’s admission that he had bilked billions of dollars, much of it stolen from the Jewish community. This compounded the general recession, which saw the stock market hit its bottom exactly a year ago Monday. Hillel went through with the dinner anyway, but it was very much scaled down — at a home in Boca Raton with only 50 or so in attendance.

“It was a hard year to ask for money,” said Rose Berman, who along with her husband Ed provided the naming gift for the Hillel Jewish University Center in Pittsburgh. The Bermans, who spend their winters in nearby Delray Beach, were not touched by Madoff but had close friends who were. “The difficult part for them,” Rose said, “is that they have nothing left to leave their kids.”

And Hillel, wary of the fact that donors in the area had been hit harder than most, shied away from pressuring anyone to give last year.

Talking to several guests and donors at this year’s event, however, there was a sense that the worst is over, and it is time to start fund raising in earnest again because while donors might feel a little tighter with their dollars, they realize the money is there.

“People aren’t scared like they were last year,” Arlene Kaufman, a member of Hillel’s Board of Governors (which requires a minimum gift of $50,000 per year) told me. “Now they are just waiting.”

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