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Arts Center Party Date Angers Jewish Patrons

July 24, 1987|ALLAN JALON | Times Staff Writer

The Orange County Performing Arts Center's one-year anniversary party is billed on invitations as "the social event of our Season," but it has turned into a social embarrassment to the Center because the bash is scheduled for Oct. 3--the night that Jewish arts patrons will be concluding Yom Kippur, their most solemn religious holiday.

Offended members of the Jewish community are calling the scheduling "insensitive" and "callous," and said it could affect the amount of money they will give to the facility in the future. As a result, an official letter of apology has been sent to key Jewish supporters and community leaders, including a promise that the situation will never be repeated.

Center officials said they settled on the night of Oct. 3, when Jewish families will break a 24-hour fast with a festive dinner, to resolve certain scheduling conflicts. Yom Kippur is the Jewish Day of Atonement.

"The fact is that some of us in the Jewish community did take our money and tried to help something of a civic nature instead of our own (Jewish) causes, but this was a slap in the face," said Elaine Ornitz, who, with her husband, Lawrence, gave more than $50,000 to build the $70.7-million Center.

Jewish donors first reacted two weeks ago upon getting invitations to the "Encore" concert and party, which will feature singer Bernadette Peters and performances by New York City Ballet principal dancers Heather Watts and Jock Soto. The complaints prompted a July 13 meeting at which Michael Lapin, president of the Orange County chapter of the American Jewish Committee, asked Center officials to reschedule the event.

According to several people who attended the one-hour session in the Center's board room, the suggestion was dismissed by Center vice chairman Timothy L. Strader and other officials, and Lapin was told that they were locked into contracts with performers.

Sheila Prell Sonenshine, a 4th District Court of Appeal justice and Center supporter, said she brought the date issue to Lapin's attention after receiving phone calls from Jewish and non-Jewish friends whose reaction she said ranged from "concern" to "hysterical." Sonenshine was among those at the July 13 meeting.

Strader could not be reached for comment. Marylyn Pauley, the Center's vice chairman for community relations who also sat in on the meeting, said the Center's special events committee wanted to schedule the event as close as possible to the Sept. 29 date of the facility's opening concert last year. Weekends on either side of the Oct. 2-3 weekend were already booked, Pauley said.

Why couldn't the event be held on a Sunday?

"It's not a good party night," she said. "People want to go to work the next day."

The Center's grand opening last year fell on a Monday night, but Pauley said: "That was different. That was a once-in-a-lifetime experience, and it didn't really matter what night it was.

"We view this as a scheduling problem. It is very hard to schedule so that you don't offend anybody. You could offend Buddhists or Hindus and not be aware of it. You hope not to offend all these other religions."

Pauley said the Center regretted any offense to Jewish donors and said she is sending letters of apology to key Jewish supporters and community leaders: "We don't disregard the Jewish families who gave a great deal to the Center. I have heard from a number of Jewish families that this might be detrimental to the Jewish giving to the Center."

In her letter, a copy of which was provided to The Times, Pauley writes: "While we must move ahead with this year's Gala as planned, I am pleased to let you know that in the future, the Orange County Performing Arts Center will not schedule its annual anniversary gala on the evening of or the evening after a high Jewish holiday."

Pauley said Center officials gave "a great deal of thought" to the selection of the date. She said Jim Feichtmann, the Center's staff member in charge of special events, consulted with Steven Edelman, director of the Orange County regional office of the Anti-Defamation League, before the date was made final. The ADL monitors cases of discrimination against Jews around the world.

"At first we were considering holding the event on Friday night, the second of October," Pauley said. "We wanted to know what would be more convenient for Jewish people who might want to come.

"As I understand it, Jim was told that both nights would be bad but that the holiday technically ended at sundown (Saturday) and that Saturday night would be more convenient."

Edelman remembers receiving a "very uncomfortable phone call" from Feichtmann in early May. "I had the feeling they were trying to calculate the amount of anger they were going to risk," Edelman said, adding that Feichtmann "indicated to me that there were not a lot of Jews who would be involved. . . . I told them they would have an outcry from the majority of their Jewish supporters."

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