A renowned philanthropist who’s given millions upon millions of dollars to charitable organizations in the United States and abroad, there is one cause about which Haim Saban is especially passionate: Israel.
“As an Israeli-American I am always concerned about the well-being of Israel,” says Saban. “Israel’s existence rests on two pillars. Pillar one is its relationship with the United States. Pillar two is its army because if Israel didn’t have the military power that it has, it would not exist. This is a country of 8 million people — 6.2 million Jews — surrounded by 300 million people, in countries with oil, who don’t like them so much. So, the odds of Israel surviving is, like [former Israeli prime minister] Ehud Barak likes to say, ‘a villa in the jungle.’ As a concerned Israeli-American I can only help at certain levels. So what can we do? We can take care of the well- being on the soldiers.”
To that end, for the past 10 years, Saban, a longtime national board member of Friends of the Israel Defense Forces, has co-chaired, along with wife Cheryl, its annual FIDF → Western Region Gala held at the Beverly Hilton in Los Angeles. Founded in 1981 by a group of Holocaust survivors, Friends of the Israel Defense Forces is a non-political, non-military organization that supports social, educational, and therapeutic programs for soldiers, families of fallen soldiers, and wounded veterans. Headquartered in New York City, the not-for-profit organization has 15 regional offices in the United States and Panama.
Last year’s star-studded FIDF gala — celebrity guests included Robert De Niro, Larry King, and Arnold Schwarzenegger — raised a record-breaking $38 million to help Israeli soldiers and their families in need.
“I really do believe that Los Angeles has the best FIDF chapter in the country, and when we really became huge is when Haim became involved,” says Miri Nash, FIDF Western Region executive director. “Before he was on the board, he was invested, he came to the galas, he gave donations, but he wasn’t as involved as he has been this last decade or so. As Haim says, ‘My heart is the FIDF. Once a year I go schnorring [fundraising] for money for one organization, and that organization is the FIDF.’”
Traci Szymanski has worked with Saban for the past four years overseeing the celebrity list and handling the entertainment PR for the gala. She’s watched the gala grow in size and stature, attributing its philanthropic success to Saban’s “integrity, heart and goodwill.”
“Haim is a man that people can count on. A man that is making a positive difference in so many ways and a man who will do what needs to be done for the good of Israel,” she says. “He does everything and anything he needs to do to support a cause that is so important.”
That means planning well in advance of its annual November date, locking in both the entertainment portion of the event as well as, most important, the presentations and speeches honoring the Israeli soldiers in attendance. No matter the circumstance or the particular journey of each soldier, the presence makes an indelible impact on gala attendees. The “lone soldiers,” those who move to Israel alone, without their families there to support them, generally draw an emotional response from the crowd.
“Every year we look for the stories [about the soldiers] and think of ways in which we can make the next gala different than the one before,” says Nash. “We don’t do tragedy for tragedy sake, there are very uplifting stories as well.”
What Saban understands exceptionally well, notes Nash, is that fundraising is a constant effort; there’s no guarantee that someone who gave one year will decide to give again.
“Nowhere is it written that people owe us, that if someone gave us $5 million last year they’ll give us a $5 million donation this year,” says Nash. “Nobody needs to write million-dollar checks. So for Haim it is a passion, it is a lot of work.”
What stands out about Saban, says Szymanski, is that with all his accolades and accomplishments — not to mention his massive fortune — he could easily not take such a proactive role in fundraising, whether it’s to raise money for a new synagogue or a swimming pool in the Negev desert to be used by soldiers and their families. He could easily rest on his laurels and leave the money-asking business to someone else.
“Haim could sit back and relax and just make a financial donation,” says Szymanski. “But Haim is a leader and a perfectionist. Haim is one of the only people that I have known of his stature that cares so much for a cause, he puts any ego aside and will do whatever it takes to help.”