Kickoff 2017: Setting the stage for a successful Campaign year

by | Oct 5, 2016 | Other News

Laine Mednick Rutherford

The 275 people who spilled off the stage, into the wings, and out into the theatre at the Sandler Center for the Performing Arts on Tuesday, September 20 weren’t there to dance or sing or act.They had braved pouring rain and flooded streets to attend the United Jewish Federation of Tidewater’s 2017 Annual Campaign Kickoff. The event featured cocktails, hors d’oeuvres and a presentation from featured speaker, Ambassador Dennis Ross.Isabel Shocket, along with Sue and Jeff Kurtz, had arrived in Virginia Beach on Monday from the Hillel at Virginia Tech, in Blacksburg, Virginia, intending to stay only a day to present a review of their programs to various UJFT groups. After finding out about the Kickoff, Sue Kurtz, executive director of the VT Hillel, chose to extend their stay another day in order to attend.Attending the event were community leaders, clergy, executives and board members of various UJFT recipient agencies, donors of all ages, friends of the UJFT and interested community members.

“The Federation supports the Hillel at Tech, and we thought it was important to stay to share our support for the Federation’s goals,” says Shocket, a Virginia Beach native and special assistant to Kurtz. “We wanted to hear about the community, thank people in person and meet new friends on this very special evening.”

The goal of Kickoff is to generate excitement for the Annual Campaign. The event begins the 10-month community fund raising effort, which allocates millions of dollars to organizations locally and abroad, to improve the lives of Jews and the communities in which they live.

Laura Geringer Gross, 2017 Annual Campaign chair, welcomed Kickoff guests. Other speakers included Young Leadership Campaign’s Jeremy Krupnick and Women Division’s Stephanie Calliott. With every seat on the stage taken, the event was standing room only for Ambassador Ross’ discussion.

Ross has worked in the field of U.S. foreign relations for three decades, was a negotiator in the Middle East peace process for 12 years, has been a confidant and advisor to five of the last six Presidents, and is the author of several books. His latest, Doomed to Succeed: the U.S.-Israel Relationship from Truman to Obama was awarded the 2015 National Book Award for history.

He is well versed on subjects such as the military and Russian politics, and is considered one of America’s top experts on Middle East issues. At the Kickoff, he directed his comments to the mostly Jewish audience.

Ross first spent a few minutes congratulating the Tidewater Jewish community and the Federation for their continued support of Israel over the years. He also spoke briefly about the U.S., Israel and the Middle East.

Rather than spending his limited time speaking about what he thought the audience wanted to hear, Ross turned to his preferred method of conversation— asking those present for their questions, and then sharing his experience and analysis in well-considered answers.

Ross’s responses illustrated the breadth of his knowledge, the depth of his experience and the honesty of his insights.

The Ambassador spoke about the slow, but noticeably improved changes in attitude toward Israel by other Middle Eastern countries such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia. He described the changes as straws in the wind, but stressed they are better than no straws at all.

Ross also discussed his analysis of the changing public sentiment in the Middle East regarding a two-state solution in Israel and Palestine. Optimism is quickly diminishing, he said frankly. While he is not a fan of Israel’s continued building of settlements in the West Bank, Ross doesn’t believe that is the main problem. “I’ll tell you what does prevent potentially a two state outcome—disbelief. Both Israelis and Palestinians alike today no longer believe that it’s going to happen,” he said.

“Where there’s loss of faith…the cynicism and the disbelief become so deeply embedded that you can’t turn it around. So it isn’t what exists on the ground that raises questions about it, it’s the psychology and the lack of a sense of possibility.”

Ross closed his Kickoff presentation with a response to a question about the civil war in Syria.

“Syria is a humanitarian catastrophe,” he said.

“It should stain the international conscience. It should motivate. And it doesn’t. We’ll wring our hands over it. We’ll condemn it. But we won’t do anything about it. And for me, it’s a shame.”

Throughout his presentation, Ross used statistics and stories to illustrate his points: 70 percent of Saudi Arabia’s population is under the age of 30 and it has the highest per capita usage of the social media platform Twitter in the world, which—surprisingly—worked in Israel’s favor, recently.

Ross described barrel bombs, weapons used by warring factions in Syria. The devices are filled with nails and other shrapnel, dropped from aircraft and designed to maximize not only deaths, but injuries as well.

He revealed a fact usually not publicized— that Israeli hospitals have treated close to 10,000 Syrian patients.

The format of his discussion was similar, yet geared toward a more general audience, with an emphasis on the role of U.S. Presidents in Middle East relations— from Truman to Obama to whoever is elected to the position in November.Ross’ discussion lasted about 15 minutes, after which Kickoff guests moved to seats in the theater. They were eager to hear more, and did, as Ross returned to the stage as the first speaker for the 2016- 2017 Israel Today/Virginia Beach Forum.

“Our Kickoffs always serve the purpose of energizing the Annual Campaign, and I think this year’s event has done just that,” said Jay Klebanoff, president of the UJFT. “Having Dennis Ross as our guest speaker and a change in venue attracted a lot of people who contribute to the campaign, but who don’t always come out. I was very happy to see the usual faces and new faces, too.”

The large turnout— despite the we a t he r—ma d e Klebanoff optimistic in the UJFT’s goal for the 2017 Campaign.

“We raised nearly $4.8 million last year, and it would be wonderful to get to $5 million this year,” Klebanoff said.

“We have such a great community—it’s small enough that people feel connected and our goal is to reach out and touch everybody, personally, and let them know how much their involvement and support matters. It’s a challenge. People are hesitant to talk to others, to ask for donations, and are turning to technology. It’s less personal, and less effective.”

To address that challenge, as they have done for the past several years, community volunteers will act as ambassadors for the Federation, meeting with friends, neighbors, newcomers and colleagues. They’re committed to raising funds and awareness for the Annual Campaign, which in turn funds dozens of partner agencies locally, nationally and globally to help vulnerable populations, strengthen Jewish communities and empower Jewish identity.

To learn more about setting up a faceto- face conversation with a volunteer or staff member about the work the Federation does, call 757-965-6110. For more about the UJFT, visit Photographs by Sharon Schloss.