Tuesday, December 06, 2016

New York Evening Hours by Lieba Nesis

UJA Wall Street Dinner Raises Record-breaking $28 Million

Packed Hilton ballroom
All photos Lieba Nesis
Click images for full size views

UJA held its annual Wall Street dinner at the Hilton with cocktails beginning at 5:00 PM. This year there were over 2,000 attendees with tickets selling out weeks in advance with the crowd excitedly anticipating the appearance of superstar Michael Douglas. Other illustrious awardees included Jeffrey Solomon, President of the Cowen Group, who received the Alan C. Greenberg Young Leadership Award, and Jeffrey Aronson, Managing Principal of Centerbridge Partners, who was given the Gustave Levy Award.

left to right Bruce Richards, David Moore, Honoree Jeffrey Solomon, Michael Douglas, honoree Jeffrey Aronson, John Paulson, Eric Goldstein, Jeffrey Schoenfeld, David Wassong and John Shapiro

As an attendee of this event for decades, this year was the most exceptional due to the enthusiasm of the crowd and the large showing of business titans including: Lloyd Blankfein, CEO of Goldman Sachs, John Paulson, President of Paulson and Co., Leon Wagner, Chairman and CEO of LW Partners, Daniel Och, CEO of Och-Ziff Management Capital, James Tisch, CEO of Loews Corporation, and more than 70 other industry leaders sitting on the Dais. Let's put it this way, Edmond Safra, President of EMS Capital, and David Wassong, Co-Head of Soros Private Equity Fund, didn't even qualify for the front row of the stage.

UJA Eric Goldstein with actor Michael Douglas

This illustrious group controls more money than the GDP of many countries and contained numerous legends in the financial industry.  CEO of UJA, Eric Goldstein, who was a former partner at Paul, Weiss LLP, has taken UJA to stratospheric heights with his kind demeanor and meticulous management. Speaking of efficiency, the delightful cocktail hour, which featured hors d'oeuvres, was actually dinner, with guests heading to the dining room for dessert and speeches.

Alexandra Lebenthal, CEO of Lebenthal Holdings in Dolce and Gabbana

Alexandra Lebenthal, CEO of Lebenthal Holdings LLC, looked fashionably professional in a Dolce and Gabbana dress and short blonde pixie cut, and started the evening highlighting UJA' s success, which was celebrating its 100th year. Alexandra, is an accomplished and beautiful financier, and her laid back demeanor belies her magnificent work ethic in the world of business and philanthropy. Alexandra has pushed hard to raise the number of women on stage from 3 to 18 and tonight she was glowing with pride at this immense achievement.

CEO of Goldman Sachs LLoyd Blankfein with UJA CEO Eric Goldstein

When I proceeded to photograph Lloyd Blankfein, he pleaded with me to wait until he had finished his hot dog-I got the picture with his mouth full but will not print it. As Robert Kapito, Chair of the UJA Board, recounted UJA's success in helping Holocaust survivors and indigent Jewish children, he joked that tonight was a perfect night to make a restaurant reservation since 2,000 Wall streeters were in this hall.

Michael Douglas in conversation with Jill Smith

It was now time for the main event, which was the appearance of two-time Academy Award winner Michael Douglas whose involvement in Judaism has grown stronger and more public, and whose Gordon Gekko Wall Street character has remained the most famous business protagonist in Hollywood history. Michael Douglas tried a new format, whereby he held a conversation with Jill Smith, Senior Advisor to the Chairman of the Genesis Prize Foundation, while seated on a chair in the corner. Thankfully, my seat was nearby, so I was able to hear his riveting interview. Michael first asked the crowd to sing Happy Birthday to his father Kirk, who was turning 100, and would be watching this night live-streamed on the Internet. Michael, looked healthy and alert, despite his 2010 battle with throat cancer.

Jill notified Michael, that his father Kirk, who was raised Orthodox, had spoken to UJA in 1955 with Michael commenting that his father consistently amazed him. Douglas went on to express his ambivalence at receiving the 2015 Genesis Prize from Benjamin Netanyahu, for people who embody the character of the Jewish people through commitment to Jewish values, as Michael's mother was a non-jew and according to Jewish law he was not jewish. Michael said 70 percent of the Jewish community in America had intermarried resulting in him trying to raise awareness on interfaith issues.

Jerry Silverman with Ambassador Danny Danon

When asked about his portrayal of Gordon Gekko, Michael said that Oliver Stone's Gekko was a composite of businessmen Carl Icahn, Asher Edelman and Ivan Boesky with Douglas basing the hairdo on Pat Riley. Douglas said he often encounters inebriated Wall Streeters who come up to him and bellow, "You're the man, you are the reason I got into this business." Douglas usually retorts,"but I ended up in jail" and they respond, "Oh don't worry about that." When asked how his movie characters might be different with the advent of the digital age, Michael said the pictures he used to make, which were more character driven and akin to independent films, don't travel as well internationally-the dominant force in the movie industry; therefore, in the current marketplace they would probably be streamed on HBO or Netflix as opposed to receiving widespread distribution.

Wall Street legends left to right David Moore, John Paulson and Daniel Och

As the topic reverted back to Judaism, Michael had the crowd in stitches when he recounted his first trip to Israel in 1965 where he saw all these beautiful Yemeni girls in short skirts and decided "he had to make the world a better place." On a more serious note, Douglas spoke of his son, Dylan, befriending and spending Shabbat with Jewish kids at his private school, and subsequently telling his father he wanted to be Jewish.

Doug Braunstein, Founder of Hudson Executive Capital and Jerry Levin, CEO
of JW Levin Management Partners

After Douglas travelled to Israel for his son's Bar Mitzvah, with a subsequent vacation in Rome, Michael said Dylan was verbally attacked for wearing a Star of David necklace with Douglas confronting the man, whose wife was startled when the movie star approached. Michael said his travels with Natan Sharansky to the Stanford, Brown and UC Santa Barbara campuses to counter antisemitism was a real eye opener and anti semitism was an issue that "you should confront every second and everywhere". Michael said he enjoys when people say "oh he's Jewish?" because he was proud to be representing his father.

Honoree and Founder of Centerbridge Partners Jeff Aronson

After this incredibly moving account, the crowd was treated to the speeches of award recipients Jeffrey Solomon and Jeffrey Aronson. As relayed by their colleagues, these men are humble, love their families and contribute greatly to charitable causes. Solomon, CEO of Cowen, had over 100 Cowen employees their to show support, and took a selfie at the start of the speech joking that it took him until the age of 50 to be presented with the Young Leadership Award. Aronson, received his honor to a standing ovation and loud plaudits and hollers from the enthusiastic crowd. As the younger guests attended the after-party next door, which contained a DJ, food and gambling, I headed home with a smile as I recalled Douglas's comment that Gekko's modern day motto should be "charity is good."





- Lieba Nesis

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