With Israel still reeling from Oct. 7, Jewish educational group steps up its support at star-studded evening in NY

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NEW YORK — Ilan Abecassis of Sderot is still reeling from the events of Oct. 7.

That morning, he watched from the window of his home as terrorists in pickup trucks overran his city, gunning down Israelis in the streets and in their homes.

In the ensuing days, he and almost all of Sderot’s other residents were evacuated. Abecassis, along with many others, was sent to Israel’s southern resort city of Eilat.

A teacher and vice principal at the AMIT high school in Sderot, Abecassis barely took a breath before swinging into action. With the help of the AMIT organization, an educational network of nearly 100 schools, youth villages, surrogate family residences and other programs in some 30 Israeli cities, Abecassis moved quickly to lead an alternative school in Eilat for evacuated children.

Following the trauma of Oct. 7, the focus has been largely on evacuees’ emotional, social and mental health.

“Throughout all of this, AMIT has been covering our physical and emotional needs,” Abecassis said. “Principals, teachers, management teams all left their families to come and offer us their support.”

Abecassis spoke at AMIT’s 2023 National Event in New York on Nov. 20 to recognize the donors who support AMIT’s network of religious Jewish educational institutions. Incorporating academic and technological studies, AMIT institutions have a special focus on children from underprivileged backgrounds and from Israel’s peripheral areas.

“Ninety-nine percent of the aid we received came directly from AMIT,” Abecassis noted in his remarks. “A significant portion of this was thanks to your generous donations.”

AMIT’s Evening of Solidarity with the Children of Israel took place at Manhattan’s Sony Hall and attracted about 250 of AMIT’s major donors and national leaders as well as notable figures such as Gilan Erdan, Israel’s permanent representative to the United Nations.

Idina Menzel, the Tony Award-winning Jewish actress and singer famous for being the voice of Elsa in Disney’s “Frozen,” was one of several artists and musicians who performed at the event. She sang a rousing rendition of the song “Tree of Life,” written to commemorate the victims of the October 2018 Tree of Live synagogue shooting in Pittsburgh. Violinist Adda Kridler and pianist Cynthia Meng opened the evening with a musical tribute to AMIT’s founder, Batya Bessie Gottsfeld. Michael Harpaz, the Israeli singer, actor and dancer, emceed the evening.

The high school in Sderot is far from the only AMIT institution directly affected by the tragedy of Oct. 7. All nine public schools in Sderot are under the aegis of AMIT. In the wake of Hamas’s attacks, about 4,300 students at those schools were evacuated — mostly to Eilat and the Dead Sea and with smaller numbers in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. In addition to the significant regular funds AMIT raises via its annual campaign, since the war began AMIT has generated over $1.5 million in additional funding just for the children of Sderot. It’s being used to fund trauma therapy and a variety of other services to help evacuees from the city.

With over 40,000 students in various schools and institutions around Israel, AMIT is an integral part of Israeli society. Hostage Noa Argamani, the 25-year-old woman who was seen being taken by Hamas terrorists on a motorcycle while being kidnapped at the Nova rave party near Re’im that morning, is a graduate of the AMIT Wasserman High School in Beersheva.

The Nov. 20 event, which had been scheduled before the war, turned into an opportunity for AMIT donors to express support for the people of Israel – and for each other – in this difficult time.

“This event is to honor all those people who have already made investments in Israel,” AMIT President Shari Safra said. “Although the tone is a little more subdued, the substance of the program is still just as relevant.”

Joyce and Daniel Straus, left, hold aloft a Torah scroll after the dedication announcement of the Gabel & Straus Campus at Kfar Batya, Israel, flanked by AMIT President Shari Safra and AMIT’s executive vice president, Andy Goldsmith. (Abbie Sophia)

Andy Goldsmith, AMIT’s executive vice president, said the evening reflected the seriousness of the crisis in Israel “while providing the opportunity to join together and recognize those who have distinguished themselves with their extraordinary commitment.”

Among those recognized at the event: Joyce and Daniel Straus of Englewood, New Jersey, who officially named the $70 million Gabel & Straus Campus at Kfar Batya; Ellen Spitzer-Kronitz and Emanuel Kronitz, for their support of Tiferet Gur Aryeh Junior College; and Shawna Goodman of the Morris & Rosalind Goodman Family Foundation, for supporting the AMIT Summer Camp program.

In a particularly emotional exchange, Goldsmith presented Joyce and Daniel Straus with a Torah scroll written in Poland more than 100 years ago — “rescued from the ashes of Europe and fully restored to its original glory, much like the Jewish people,” Goldsmith said.

“Joyce and Daniel, you epitomize the finest qualities of the American Jewish community. When the news from Israel is good, you celebrate with pride in her accomplishments and victories,” Goldsmith said. “And when the news is bad or, as now, laced with tragedy, you feel it with every fiber of your being and are moved to respond—in tefila [prayer], in protest, and in action.”

The Kfar Batya campus is a 10-acre educational site under construction in the central Israeli city of Ra’anana that is designed to incubate ideas and level the playing field for children from Israel’s social and geographic periphery. The campus’s name recognizes Stefanie and Jack Gabel, the parents of Joyce Straus, and Gwendolyn and Joseph Straus, parents of Daniel Straus. Its naming represents the largest donation in AMIT’s 98-year history. The campaign to fund the brand-new campus is still underway.

“We wanted to give this gift in honor and memory of our parents, to benefit AMIT and the state of Israel,” said Joyce Straus. “We hope that this will inspire others with the ability to give, to make a significant investment in AMIT and Israel’s future.”

The Gabels, Holocaust survivors who immigrated to the United States in 1949, rebuilt their lives in Queens, New York. While still in her teens, Gwendolyn Straus joined AMIT — then known as the Mizrahi Women’s Organization of America — and was a lifelong Zionist. Joyce Straus, a longtime AMIT board member and officer, is AMIT’s former chair and its current vice president for financial resource development.

Founded in 1925, AMIT largely was a women’s organization until recently. In 2019, Alex Luxenberg of Great Neck, New York, became one of the first three men to join AMIT’s board in its nearly 100-year history. Luxenberg has been involved with AMIT for about 15 years and currently serves as AMIT’s vice president of marketing.

As the Nov. 20 gala event wound down and board members bade each other goodbye, some were careful to note that it was only “l’hitraaot” — see you later. Several board members will be joining an upcoming three-day support mission to Israel that begins on Dec. 4.

This story was sponsored by and produced in partnership with AMIT Children, which provides an innovative, Jewish values-based education to over 40,000 children in Israel each year. This article was produced by JTA’s native content team.

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