A modest proposal: Get rid of organizational dinners

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I have a suggestion that may revolutionize American Jewish life, more than free Jewish education or women rabbis or pay-to-pray High Holy Days services.

Let's do away with Jewish organizational dinners.

I know it might be easier to bring peace to the Middle East. But think of all the time — not to mention chickens — we'd all save if we didn't have to spend so many evenings a year attending the annual banquet sponsored by the American Friends of Mideast Enemies or Yeshivat Ahavat Kessef or the Society of Seventh Day Atheists or whatever worthy cause demands that we dress up in our finest duds, stuff ourselves with hors d'oeuvres before eating a fattening dinner, try desperately to make conversation with strangers across a crowded and noisy table, listen to a stunning variety of boring speeches and come home convinced we will never submit ourselves to such self-inflicted torture again.

Don't get me started.

The truth is that I understand full well the rationale for these dinners, and they are often invaluable in raising funds for wonderful and worthy causes.

But there is no law that says that Jews only give money by way of annual dinners.

We saved Soviet Jews and Syrian Jews and Ethiopian Jews without dining out. We believed in the cause and we sent our checks. Simple. Why, then, can't we save time and energy and calories by supporting a host of other good causes financially, and spend that extra time at home with our families?

You can't convince me that most people who attend these dinners do so out of anything other than a sense of obligation. When's the last time you heard, "Great news, honey. Tonight's the shul dinner." Perhaps we admire the sponsoring institution or synagogue or cause and feel too guilty to lend our support financially and not physically. Or maybe we know the honorees — not well enough to tell them that we resent having to attend the dinner, but just well enough to realize that "it would look bad" if we didn't show up.

No one likes planning these evenings, either. We may volunteer for altruistic reasons and are soon reduced to calling the caterer every day to update the menu and attendance list.

And then there are the honorees, those who fuel the engine of these events by not only contributing their money but their entire personal and professional mailing lists, obligating all who know them to show up and pay them homage.

The deserving honorees feel awkward, at best, about the limelight, and the undeserving ones cheapen the whole enterprise.

I still smile when I remember the call we received a few years ago from a desperate dinner chairman who asked my wife and me to be the honorees of a fine organization. When we protested that there were so many other couples more worthy than us, and began to name them, the brutally honest caller said wearily, "I know, I know. I tried them all already."

When did this concept of Jewish fund-raising dinners begin? Can you picture Moses as Man of the Year at a Children of Israel Desert Donor Dinner-Dance to raise funds for the Holy Tabernacle? There he'd be in a tux, staff in hand, brother Aaron at his side, thanking everyone for their ads — "To A Real Leader, May You Live to be 120" — in the Divine Dinner Journal.

If no one loves these obligatory dinners, let's think of an alternative. Where is our creativity? Some organizations have started campaigns that say, in effect, send us your check and stay home. But that's not very sociable. To its credit, Mazon: The Jewish Response to Hunger holds what it calls a "Dinner Without Dinner," dramatizing its cause by sponsoring a social and educational event with no food served. Nine hundred people showed up in New York for a no-dinner-dinner in 1992.

My modest proposal is that all of the sponsoring Jewish groups that have annual dinners get together and rent out a huge hall, maybe even Madison Square Garden, and put on one big dinner. We'd all show up, make a collective contribution, and the giant banner behind the speaker's podium could be changed every 15 minutes, allowing for the requisite photo opportunities involving gift presentations and the reading of proclamations.

That way, each organization would have its moment in the spotlight (Andy Warhol would be proud), and we'd only have to suffer one night — for a host of worthy causes.

If you've got a better idea, let me know. In the meantime, though, just pick a name — Super Sunday Night, or The Night of 1,000 Glances, or The Endless Bummer — and I'll put my tux in mothballs in anticipation of the annual Jewish banquet to end all banquets, literally.