Low-key FIDF fundraiser still rakes in the dough

Where have all the big stars gone?

There was nothing flashy or fanciful about this year’s Friends of the Israel Defense Forces western region gala, annually chaired by billionaire mogul Haim Saban and his wife, Cheryl.

The Oct. 22 event, held at the Beverly Hilton Hotel, is usually one of the most energizing and inspiring of the year’s Jewish lot, but this year was some exception – in more ways than one.

The gala itself was uncharacteristically tame. In the past, the usually star-studded event has filled the giant ballroom at the Hyatt Regency in Century City, sometimes with upwards of 1,200 guests. Iconic musicians like Andrea Bocelli and Barbra Streisand have performed, while “Seinfeld” star Jason Alexander has dutifully emceed.

But this year, there was little of that. The venue was changed to the Hilton, which is reliable but smaller. No headlining musical act was invited to perform, though the always entertaining David Foster Wallace reprised his role as host of “FIDF Idol” an after dinner concert in which mostly up and coming talents took the stage. [It was pointed out to me that I should have acknowledged surprise guest Lionel Richie, who gave a surprise performance at the end of the night.]

Big name attendees were also scarcer this year, though Israeli mega-producer Avi Lerner was there, as was Electus founder Ben Silverman. The shiniest star in the whole lot, though, was the real “American Idol,” Simon Cowell, who sat gleaming in a corner with his very pregnant girlfriend (Jewish divorcee Lauren Silverman, with whom Cowell had an affair while she was still married) and from where he publicly pledged $50,000 to the Israel Defense Forces.

That’s right: Simon Cowell, critic extraordinaire, is officially a Zionist; and, on his way out of the gala, told me his plans to visit Israel later this year.

But the Cowell coup was hardly the evening’s redemptive triumph. Far be it from Haim Saban to get upstaged by tamping down. In the end, the host himself took to the podium to project his power and remind everyone that this festivity is really a fundraiser  – $5.2 million in 2009, $9 million in 2010, $14 million in 2012 – and a whopping $20 million in 2013, a record-breaking sum.

Even without the frills, Saban proved he could still bank boodles. The emotional centerpiece of the evening was what it should have been: Israeli soldiers telling their personal stories. One young man recalled losing five family members and his sight to a suicide bombing; and a local L.A. couple with two sons in the IDF earned the blessings of a surprise, staged visit. Why spend a bundle on big rooms and bad food when there could be more for the cause?

Maybe this year Saban decided not to put his money where his mouth is, but where his heart is.