B'nai B'rith International honored Newport Beach philanthropist and businessman Mel Jaffee in an awards ceremony heralded as "the largest B'nai B'rith dinner ever held in the state of California," according to Joe Mittelman, event chairman.
The black-tie gala at Le Meridien Hotel in Newport Beach drew 457 guests--among them prominent members of the local Jewish community, including Merv Lemmerman, executive director of the Jewish Federation of Orange County, and Herb Brin, editor of Heritage, a Jewish newspaper distributed weekly throughout Southern California.
Shortly before dinner Saturday night, Jaffee, president of National Lumber and Supply Inc. in Fountain Valley looked slightly uncomfortable after he was asked why he thought he was chosen to receive the "Great American Traditions" award from the world's largest and oldest Jewish service organization.
"To be honest," said the silver-haired Jaffee, accompanied by his stunning wife, Raya, a former colonel in the Israeli army, "I'm not sure why they picked me when so many other people have done so much more."
The award is presented "five or six times a year . . . to people who display something in their life style and performance that we want to honor," said Jerome Bristol, a member of the Board of Governors of B'nai B'rith. Past recipients include former President Gerald Ford, Gov. George Deukmejian and Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley.
A few clues to Jaffee's nomination: He is a past president of the Orange County Jewish Federation Council and former campaign chairman for the United Jewish Welfare Fund of Orange County. He established the Jaffee Sports Center for the children of the City of Ashdod in Israel. He endowed the Jaffee Chair in International Trade at Tel Aviv University.
And, according to guest speaker Maj. Gen. Aharon Yariv, a former head of Israeli military intelligence, Jaffee has made "massive contributions" to Tel Aviv University's national and international security research program. Thus, in 1983, the program was named the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies--Israel's only independent think tank for on military and strategic issues.
After guests danced to songs ranging from "Hava Nagila" to "Satin Doll" and enjoyed an elegant dinner of smoked fish appetizer in caviar sauce, a choice of filet mignon or broiled salmon and Viennese pastries, Gen. Yariv--head of the Jaffee Center--stepped up to the podium "to honor my very dear friend--and my boss."
Yariv called Jaffee "the epitome of what a loyal American and a proud Jew should be." After a brief recitation of Jaffee's involvement with local charities and his generous contributions to Israeli causes, Yariv made note of his friend's "humility, which is like a seasoning to all his other attributes."
The $150-per-person event netted about $100,000. The money will be used to support B'nai B'rith youth groups throughout the country.