by Sarah Breger
In a raw speech during an otherwise canned evening, Jacob Ostreicher, the Orthodox Jewish businessman who was imprisoned in Bolivia for 18 months, thanked Sean Penn for the actor’s role in his escape. “I can’t go into all the details of … how difficult the road to freedom was and how many times Sean saved my life. But I can say he literally dropped everything for a fellow American half way across the planet, even to the point that Sean himself had to flee Bolivia.”
Ostreicher, who was speaking at the Champions of Jewish Values International Awards Gala in New York last Sunday night, went on to detail how Penn helped the father of five transition back into life after captivity. “Sean put me up in a 5-star hotel and then he brought me into his home, gave me a warm bed, a refrigerator stocked with kosher food and told me Jacob my house is your house. He even took me to synagogue and sat by my side as I attended Friday night prayer services for the first time in 3 years.”
Penn was being honored at the tony midtown Manhattan Cipriani restaurant along with an eclectic roster of names, including Senator Corey Booker, Israeli ambassador to the U.S. Ron Dermer and casino magnate and Republican megadonor Sheldon Adelson. The night was orchestrated by “America’s Rabbi” Shmuely Boteach for his non-profit This World: The Values Network, which describes its goals as “advancing universal Jewish values in the media and culture” and “affirming the Jewish people as a light unto the nations.” While it was still unclear by the end of the night what the organization does, Boteach’s ability to draw such star power as well over 700 guests spoke to his reach.
This included New Jersey Governor and possible Republican presidential candidate Chris Christie, who delivered a highly anticipated the keynote address. Surprisingly Christie did not mention Israel once throughout the speech—as many thought the talk would serve as his second chance to woo Adelson after the last month’s “occupied territories” gaffe. Instead Christie called on America to take a firmer stand in foreign policy issues warning that “America is no longer sending clear signals who our friends are and who are enemies are.”
Christie called America “the strongest moral power for what is good and what is right in the world” but said it was not living up to the challenge. “No one can realistically believe today when we have Democrats and Republicans who not only don’t govern but don’t speak to each other that we could be a model … The failure of domestic tranquility and governance leads to the diminishment of America’s role in the world.” While he didn’t talk about Obama directly, he criticized America’s political leadership in general.
“Time for our leaders to stop singing a happy tune about the condition of our country,” Christie said. “Time to tell the truth.”
Gov. Rick Perry, R-Texas—another presidential hopeful—took the opportunity to call for “renewed commitment” to the state of Israel as he presented a “Principle Benefactor Award” to the Adelsons.
“I’ve borne witness to the present day threats facing the people of Israel. Hamas to the immediate east, Hezbollah to the north, Syria to the northwest and over the horizon, the greatest threat of all, Iran,” Perry said. To thunderous applause, he added: “It’s time for this country to end the policy of calculated ambivalence and renew our commitment to a strong Israel. America must be clear. Israel has the right to exist as a Jewish state.”
Adelson himself briefly spoke, saying the greatest challenge facing Jews today is Jewish continuity “We are at an existential crossroads,” he continued, take one route and continue to flourish, take another route to extinction.
He went on to describe Jews as “one big family” and recounted his first time in Israel and realizing there was no Washington Street or Main Street, but rather a Ben Yehuda Street. “I realized everyone around me was Jewish. Everyone was part of the same family.”