By: Meir S. Zeitchik  | 

Gore Presses For US Troops in Bosnia at YU Chanukah Dinner (Vol. 61, Issue 7)

The seventy-first Chanukah dinner at the Waldorf Astoria in Manhattan, Yeshiva University’s largest fundraiser of the year, seemed in some respects very much like the first seventy. The five hundred dollar a plate event, which took place on Sunday, attracted the richest and most influential people in the country. There were the businessmen (Viacom Chairman Sumner Redstone), the politicians (U.S. vice president Albert Gore, U.S. congresspersons Charles Rangel and Carol Maloney and New York State Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver) and the former politicians (ex-New York mayor David Dinkins).

But beneath the veneer of elegant tuxedos and glitzy ballroom dresses, elaborate culinary arrangements and ornate centerpieces were a series of substantial speeches. They ranged from impassioned moral arguments for troops in Bosnia by the United States second-in-command to a shiur on Chanukah from YU’s leader.

Vice President Gore set the tone for the evening with his convocation address - the keynote speech at the ceremony conferring honorary degrees - which was itself wide-ranging. Wearing a white knitted kippah, he stressed the critical role the US must play in sending troops to Bosnia, “Europe cannot do it alone,” he said, his voice rising emotionally. “Europe did not do it the last time when ethnic cleansing began in Germany and it led to ethnic cleansing in Europe, and the Holocaust.” He acknowledged that sending troops to Bosnia wasn’t risk-free, “Few worthwhile missions are,” he said. “But the risks of doing nothing are infinitely greater.”

Turning his attention to the domestic front, Gore covered a variety of current legislative topics. The budget battle and the rollback of environmental regulations, urging lawmakers to fight the conservative tide sweeping Washington even if it posed political dangers. Drawing on this week's Haftarah, or a weekly reading from Tanach, he invoked the example of Ovadia, who saved hundreds of people from the wrath of Achav and Ezevel. “He [Ovadia] didn’t calculate whether it would help him or hurt him in the polls,” Gore said. And in a poignant moment, he reminded the audience that balancing the budget should be done so that it “offers dignity to older Americans,” as he stood against a backdrop of largely elderly benefactors.

Lamm Delivers Talmud Shiur

In a move unprecedented for a Chanukah dinner, YU president Rabbi Dr. Norman Lamm chose to teach the audience instead of addressing them. Hoping to give the dinnergoers what he called a “taste of what they [YU students] do” bound copies of a section of a Gemara in Shabbat pertaining to Chanukah were distributed. After dedicating the shiur to the memory of Yitzhak Rabin, Lamm outlined and explained the classic disagreement between Beit Shamai and Beit Hillel on whether Chanukah candles are lit each day in ascending or descending order. He concluded by inferring the message of pluralism from the debate in the Gemara, and saying that, just like the principle of “Ma’alin bakodesh v’einmoridin” Jews must “keep moving forward.”

Keynote dinner's peaker and Viacom chairman Sumner Redstone spoke little of YU, taking the opportunity instead to wax introspective on the role of the media in the Information Age. He spoke of the heavy responsibility of those in his profession in an age when “we can take children across the globe before we allow them to cross the street.” But he cautioned against oversimplifying the definition of that responsibility. “We cannot ever agree which violence children should not see.” Redstone sung the praises of the right to criticize the messages emitted by the popular media. “Is it appropriate for Bill Bennet to crucify vulgarity...? Absolutely,” but warned that “Censorship is never the answer.” And he emphasized the obligations of the media industry. “Media itself should not only reflect those values [of society] but be a catalyst for change.”

An air of joy tempered with restraint hung over the dinner. 

The dinner comes on the heels of a New York times story on the endowment of Anne Scheiber, who bequeathed $22 million to SCW and AECOM, and after former American Greetings Co. executive Irving Stone pledged two million dollars to the Beit Midrash Program. “We're all on a high,” said former YU Rabbi Dr. Israel Miller in an interview. But there was also the knowledge that the dinner comes at the end of the sheloshim (thirty day mourning period) for Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. YU trustee Erica Jesselson interrupted her opening remarks to ask the audience to rise in memory of the slain Israeli leader. An image of Rabin was plastered on screens throughout the ballroom as dinnergoers stood in somber reflection. Gore contributed to the jovial mood with his dry wit. In a lengthy introduction to his speech, he entertained the audience with his witticisms and one-liners in a manner more reminiscent of a stand-up comic than a politician. What's great about the seal of the Vice President, he said is that if you close your left eye and turn your head just right it says: President of the United States.” Later in his speech, he deadpanned: “You and your university have done a good deed. Or what we Southern Baptists like to call a mitzvah.” And in a bit of self-deprecating humor, he poked fun at this image as a stiff and uninspiring politician with lines like “Al Gore is so boring his Secret Service code name is... Al Gore,” and “It’s no secret I ran for president in 1988, although it seemed like one to most people.”

The fact that the twenty-two million dollar contribution came from a woman who never set foot in YU further enlivened the mood. For some elected officials, this dramatizes the profound and far-reaching effect YU has on people. “It shows you what an impact YU has made. Here is an individual (Scheiber) who had no connection and felt this was an opportunity to give to Jewish students,” said New York state Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver (YC ’65) in an interview. Commenting on YU's effect on its surroundings, Washington Heights Congressman Charles Rangel told The Commentator that the relationship between the community and YU is “excitingly good. It’s just a great university.”