MJE Celebrates Jewish Life At Annual Dinner
The outreach group marks 18 years with annual gala at the Museum of Jewish Heritage honoring young men and women in the Jewish community
For MOTs, the number 18 has a symbolic meaning: it represents life. And last week, the spiritually charged number came to reflect a literal milestone for the Manhattan Jewish Experience.
On Thursday night, MJE hosted its annual dinner at the Museum of Jewish Heritage to celebrate 18 years of successful outreach and the organization’s accomplishments.
More than 500 guests (a record for the group), many of whom were young Jewish professionals reveled with cocktails, fare and a reception following an awards ceremony.
MJE's founder, Rabbi Mark Wildes, opened the evening by acknowledging the symbolism of the night. “Eighteen years, chai, Jewish life. That’s what we’re celebrating tonight,” said Rabbi Wildes. “We are here to celebrate the hundreds of children born to MJE couples who now attend Jewish day schools, the thousands of 20s and 30s who over the last 18 years embraced Judaism in one way or another.” The rabbi then enumerated the many ways in which the organization has successfully reached out to the Jewish community in New York — from Shabbat dinners, to Torah studies to advanced Jewish learning programs, to trips to Israel. “These have become the foundation of the very warm and vibrant community that we’ve all gotten used to at MJE.”
MJE, which was established in 1998, has been serving thousands of young professionals in New York City through their various social, cultural, spiritual and educational programs and events. Attracting a range of people in the Jewish community, the organization provides opportunities to connect with Judaism in a relaxed, open environment — from those with an observant background to those who have never been to a Friday-night dinner.
Fittingly, the evening’s theme was “life,” as exemplified through the lush, green décor representing spring and rejuvenation: one of the walls in the vast room was covered in moss, and ivy wrapped around the bar (called the “l’chaim station”), which served top-shelf whiskey. For the event’s logo and programs, the organization used a play on “LIFE” magazine; it pasted photos of their honorees as cover models of glossy publications and large posters, which were placed on standing easels in the banquest room's entry way.
Rabbi Ephraim Buchwald received the Rabbinic Leadership Award for serving at the helm of a variety of Jewish engagement programs as facilitated through his National Jewish Outreach Programs. Addressing the crowd, Rabbi Buchwald commended MJE for being one of the most accomplished outreach and engagement centers in the Jewish world. “You have taken Jewish engagement to a whole new level, and we are so proud to be part of it,” he said.
He also characterized Rabbi Wildes as “by far America’s coolest rabbi,” making reference to a video of the rabbi strutting down the sidewalks of the Upper West Side in a leather jacket — lending the residential community a hip, downtown vibe.
Throughout the ceremony, Jewish a cappella group The Maccabeats performed. Opening with “Hatikvah,” the popular group went on to sing “Hallelujah,” perhaps an ode to the late Leonard Cohen, weaving between English and Hebrew lyrics as a slideshow played. Videos showed children of couples who met through MJE playing as the band moved into Matisyahu’s “One Day.”
In addition to Rabbi Buchwald, the central honoree, the evening celebrated Dana and Matthew Hiltzik, Leigh and Daniel Waxman, and Emily and Andrew Weiss, all couples who have notably contributed as members of the organization. MJE participants ("students," they are called) Troy Valberg and Heather Conn were also honored for their participation in educational programs.
Natalie Lebovitz-Zaidenberg, MJE's director of events, who played a fundamental role in organizing the evening along with co-chair Jessica Morgan Richter, said the event was the biggest she’s executed since taking on the position. “Seeing all these people come together for a good cause while enjoying the beautiful spread, open bar, décor and all the details we put so much thought into is what makes it all worth it to me,” said Lebovitz-Zaidenbeg. “It’s very gratifying to see something you’ve worked on for six months come to life in front of your eyes.”
After guests dined on chicken, mashed potatoes of various varieties, and sweet potato waffles (a trendy spin on bubbe’s cooking), they enjoyed the interactive photo booth while DJ Gary Wallin spun modern hits, filling the elegant venue with a funkier energy. Shot glasses were gifted as party favors (apropos of the night’s theme) and decadent doughnuts were stacked in colorful piles for people to enjoy on the spot or take home for a late-night sugar rush.
As the sun set over the Hudson, the Statue of Liberty in view, guests of multiple generations intermingled, and one thing was clear: the room was full of life.
Manhattan Jewish Experience
The Museum of Jewish Heritage