Haim Saban, Andrea Bocelli add up to $9 million-dollar-night for FIDF

It was an evening of money and music.

Which isn’t terribly surprising when media mogul Haim Saban is your host. For one, he’s listed as a Forbes billionaire, but lesser known is his passion for music: In 1966, he played bass in an Israeli rock band, The Lions of Judah, and after that, he made his first fortune composing scores for television cartoons.

So it wasn’t altogether unexpected that by combining his business acumen with his predilection for music that Saban was able to raise almost $9 million for the Friends of the Israel Defense Forces western regional chapter during last night’s gala dinner in Century City: First achieve your goal, then reward your team.

The event, hosted for the fourth consecutive year by Saban and his wife, Cheryl, was a lesson in how to throw a party. There was the astonishing entertainment (Andrea Bocelli), the better-than-average food (smoked salmon salad), and syrupy videos of IDF soldiers designed to tug at the heartstrings. All of which proved that no one else in the Los Angeles Jewish community is quite as deft at enticing others to take up a cause than the Sabans.

“At the conclusion of Hanukkah, we remember how the Maccabees triumphed in the face of odds,” Haim said while addressing the crowd. “Let’s not forget that the Jewish people overcame the Syrian-Greeks, the Roman empire, the Spanish Inquisition, the Russian pogroms, the Holocaust. We are a resilient people, a strong people, a successful people.” And with a defiant voice, as if he were speaking directly to Israel’s enemies, he said: “We are here to stay and stay forever.”

And nothing ensures a place at the table like a whole lot of money. If there’s anything Saban knows well, it’s business—and a friendly challenge to his comrades went a long way last night when he kicked off a kind of bidding war that brought the fundraiser’s total from an initial $2.5 million to $8,750,000.

“On the way in, Cheryl said to me, ‘I think we should match what we raise tonight,’” Saban told 1,000 dinner guests from the podium. “I said, ‘You’re the boss.’”

The “unprecedented sum” of $2.5 million—which, until that moment had been the highest amount raised during the Sabans’ tenure as chairs—became $5 million.

“Seinfeld” star Jason Alexander, who struck the perfect pitch as the evening’s emcee quipped, “This is better than my temple building fund.”

With pep and wit, Alexander prompted the crowd to follow Saban’s lead, gushing over Saban’s good looks and feigning romantic interest for laughs. “Who wants to become the second most attractive man in the room?”

With that, Leo David, a former Israeli soldier himself and the founder of the FIDF western regional branch, stood up and pledged $1 million.

“Mr. Leo David just became more handsome than Haim Saban,” Alexander said.

Next, Paul Guerin, the president of the west coast FIDF chapter, pledged $1 million and after that, the floodgates opened…

FIDF western regional director Miri Nash, dressed sharply in a black cocktail dress that accented her long blonde hair, began dashing around the room with a microphone in hand, tossing it off to anyone who wanted to pledge more for the pot. A 17-year-old named Dominic pledged $1,000; another family gave $18,000 on behalf of the Persian synagogue Nessah; yet another family promised $100,000; and on and on until the final major gifts—$500,000 from Guess jeans founder Paul Marciano and $1 million more from his brother, Maurice—concluded an exceptionally energizing and effective philanthropic ploy.

Even at four times the amount expected, Alexander pressed on: “If anybody else would like to become attractive… God will write you into the book; you don’t even have to go to high holidays next year.”

The intensity escalated even further when David Foster, the 16-time Grammy winning artist took over the mic and the piano for the musical portion of the evening. Surprisingly boisterous and funny, Foster invited American Idol runner-up Katherine McPhee to perform her rendition of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” before introducing “the best singer in the entire world”—Andrea Bocelli—to come on stage for a 6-piece program that included hits “The Prayer” and “Time to Say Goodbye.”

But the most tender part of the night was when 9-year-old piano prodigy Ethan Bortnick took the stage to perform Mozart and turned towards the IDF soldiers sitting in the front row, gushing: “You guys are my new heroes.”

Read my cover story on Haim Saban at jewishjournal.com