When JCF hosts a family dinner, 1,600 folks RSVP

It was some "family dinner."

There were 158 tables, an orchestra and a veritable sea of freshly coifed heads, not to mention sparkling brooches plucked from the bottom of jewelry boxes. The entertainment wasn't Uncle Murray making milk come out of his nose but Academy Award-winning performer Joel Grey whirling across the stage like a dervish.

"This evening you are at home, with your extended family," said Wayne Feinstein, executive vice president of the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation. "I wish we could all be seated together close, in my living room."

But no amount of bridge tables and fold-up chairs could ever accommodate the crowd of nearly 1,600 — the largest group ever assembled for a dinner in the history of the Bay Area Jewish community.

The magnitude of Tuesday's event at San Francisco's Hilton Hotel came as a surprise to organizers, who threw the dinner as a thank-you gesture to members of the new "Quarter Century Circle," a group of donors who have given any amount to the federation for 25 consecutive years or more.

Plans were made for about 600 guests but RSVPs flooded in, and who was the federation to turn down family?

The event was for "everyone from the macher to the shlepper," explained Rabbi Alan Lew of Congregation Beth Sholom in San Francisco. "Everyone is equal. Some have given much, some not so much. What we're honoring is constancy of heart."

As he addressed the crowd, Lew was multiplied and magnified by three huge video screens in the vast ballroom. "I thank God for the great but simple miracle of your persistence," he said.

Like many of the senior honorees, Art Nevins began giving to the federation when times were tough. During the Depression he was fresh from Brooklyn and struggling to make a living selling ladies' hats and gloves.

"I only gave a little," explained Nevins between courses of roast chicken and chocolate cake. "It wasn't how much, it was the giving. I came from a family that did that."

Before sitting down to dinner, Liesel Kaufmann mingled in the crowded ballroom with her family. She smoothed the silk of the vivid green dress she hadn't worn since her son's wedding two years ago.

"I'm excited. It's our 47th anniversary. This is a helluva way to celebrate," she said.

"And I've got my cuff links," joked her husband, John.

The Kaufmanns have been giving to the federation every year since they settled in Palo Alto in 1958.

The price tag for the dinner party was estimated at $100,000, according to Feinstein, but its entire budget came from special private grants. Those were specifically established "to recognize our most dedicated donors and encourage others to follow in their footsteps," he said.

Donors were saluted in categories — those who had given for 25, 35, 45 and 50 years. As spotlights scanned the banquet hall, the honorees stood beside their seats to loud applause.

Event co-chair Golda Kaufman then welcomed to the stage 18 donors who are notable because all have donated for 60 years or more. Clutching white bouquets, they shyly smiled at the hundreds of faces looking up at them.

Among those faces were those of the honorees' children and grandchildren, whom Kaufman asked to stand "so we can take a look at our future."

Goldman's own grandson, Steve Kaufman, who came from Portland, Ore., for the event, rose with the younger generation.

"When Grandma throws a party, everyone comes," he said.

Al Spencer's relatives came from as far away as New Zealand and Israel for the occasion. At 97, Spencer is one of the oldest and most consistent donors to the federation. He augments his annual checks by volunteering time each week to converse with residents of the Jewish Home for the Aged, and was featured in a short video about the federation's work that was screened at the dinner.

The film aimed to highlight the progress made possible by donors such as Spencer, an immigrant from Budapest.

Images of Nazi Europe were intercut with those of refugees the federation resettled here after World War II. Colorful flashes showing Jewish children dancing at summer camp, Soviet emigres learning English, and bar and bat mitzvah celebrants singing at the bimah illustrated the organization's support of Jewish education and continuity in the Bay Area since the Federation of Jewish Charities — as it was originally called — was formed in 1910.

Spencer and the other 60-year donors inspired a standing ovation from the crowd. So did former Jerusalem Mayor Teddy Kollek, who made a surprise visit to thank the group for their support of Israel and other Jewish causes.

Applause also greeted Alan Rothenberg, current federation president, who presented Richard Goldman, a past president, with an oral history of Goldman's tenure as local leader and philanthropist.

The last standing ovation of the evening was reserved for sprightly entertainer Joel Grey, whose act sashayed between show tunes such as "New York, New York" and Yiddish novelty songs made famous by his father, Borscht Belt comic Mickey Katz.

After riffing, bantering and kickball-changing his way through several songs, Grey switched to a more serious mood. A spotlight shone on his gently lined face as he talked about his dad, who taught him about living both onstage and off.

He segued into an emotional rendition of "My Yiddishe Papa."

Good thing Feinstein had welcomed the audience by telling them, "if you feel like kvelling or shedding a tear, it's OK — you're among family."