UJA-Federation of New York sponsors more than 300 events a year, but Monday night’s program was unique.
It wasn’t a fundraiser, it was almost devoid of speeches, and instead of focusing on “the ask,” its theme was “thanks” — to the audience of about 500 of its major supporters as it launched its centennial year with a celebratory evening of entertainment at Lincoln Center. The 90-minute program included a range of performers (who appeared gratis) that included comic actor Nick Kroll, Israeli singer David Broza, the Avenue Q puppets and Dr. Ruth Westheimer, who encouraged everyone to go home and “make believe tonight is Friday night,” the traditional time for couples to make love. “Try a new position and call me tomorrow,” the 88-year-old sex therapist advised.
Not your typical UJA event.
The proud history of the largest Jewish charity of its kind, founded in 1917, was touched on through historical photos and, almost in passing, by the various entertainers. But the emphasis was on recognizing and honoring the group that one UJA official privately referred to as “the shtarkers,” the core segment of big givers, who appeared to be delighted to mark the special occasion together.
The light mood was evident from the opening video of an Avenue Q puppet chauffeuring the five top lay and professional UJA leaders to Lincoln Center. It featured him complaining that for all of its diversity, UJA doesn’t address the needs of people “of fabric,” and them gamely singing “I Get By With A Little Help From My Friends” in the back of the limo.
The emcee, TV actor Mark Feuerstein, set the “haimish” tone for the evening when he good-naturedly noted, “we’re here to celebrate you — you very wealthy Jews.” Nick Kroll, now starring on Broadway in “Oh, Hello,” echoed the sentiment, announcing, “I’m here because my mother told me to do this.” (His parents, Jules and Lynn Kroll, are longtime UJA supporters.) He praised the women in the audience as the heroes, “foot soldiers” of the Jewish charitable world, and told the men it was time for them to “wear the hearing aid your family wants you to wear.”
Other highlights of the evening: Samantha Massell, who played Hodel in the recent Broadway production of “Fiddler On The Roof,” singing “Far From The Home I Love”; Joshua Nelson, billed as the Prince of Kosher Gospel, rocking the crowd with his Motown version of the Hebrew verse, “Mi Chamocha”; Vanessa Hidary performing her signature slam poetry piece, “Hebrew Mamita”; and comic Judy Gold testing the audience’s tolerance for her edgy humor, noting that she had the miss the seder last Passover because she had a yeast infection.
“You’re the only audience I don’t have to explain that joke to,” she said.