By Michal Weinstein
“Would you be interested in doing a Couture for a Cause event for Renewal if we can get Joan Rivers?” That’s the question that my friend Sharon Langert, a.k.a. Fashionisha, who had just donated a kidney through Renewal, asked me one day. It had been over two years since our last CFAC event. We already had three successful fundraisers under our belt, but to be honest, each event takes so much out of us that we were not even thinking of the next. Months of putting everything on hold, be it your business or your free and not-so-free time, to pull off an amazing fashion and raffle show that also raises a lot of money for the given charity that we choose, prompts us to think long and hard every time we decide to do it again. But to be able to get the great Joan Rivers . . .
“Sharon, if you can get Joan Rivers at no cost I don’t think we would have a choice. Of course we would do it. But what are the chances?”
Joan Rivers got involved with Renewal when her dear friend Henry needed a kidney transplant. Renewal helped Henry get a kidney and, in turn, Joan, grateful to them, told Renewal that if they ever need any help fundraising she would be more than happy to make an appearance. But would Renewal agree to use that favor for a CFAC event? Would Joan really come through? It sounded like a far reach.
One day Sharon and I attended a fashion show during Fashion Week in NYC and who happens to be there? Joan herself! We decided to introduce ourselves and feel her out. Sharon approached her and not only was she warm and receptive but she seemed genuinely interested and told Sharon to contact her people. Fast-forward . . . she agreed at no cost at all, Renewal agreed to let us host her, and we settled on a date in June 2013. This is a woman who gets $50K for her appearances, and she was coming to our event for free! It felt like a dream.
And so our event began to take hold. Our theme: “Joys of Life.” Our designers: Raquel and Zoe Ltd. who specialize in simcha clothing. Having Joan as our headliner predictably took this event to an entirely new level. We received incredibly generous raffles. We got a large amount of sponsors. General tickets were gone six weeks before the event as well as the 75 $500 VIP tickets that allowed people to actually meet Joan. It was the hottest ticket in town and people were put on a waiting list in case we were able to squeeze more in. This was all thanks to Joan Rivers. To have such a legend come to the Five Towns was something many did not want to miss.
It was the day before the event and we were at Temple Israel setting up when Sharon got an urgent e-mail from Joan’s assistant: “Call us right away.”
Up until then there was still a part of us that didn’t believe this would really happen. Well, our nightmare came true when we were told Joan’s sister had died. She would be sitting shivah. She would not be able to attend.
I can’t even begin to describe the horrific feeling knowing that this event, centered around Joan Rivers, would no longer have the main attraction. What about the VIPs who paid $500 to see her? This was a disaster! Frantically, we tried salvaging this situation by finding another celebrity. The only ones available were either not appropriate or would cost a fortune. There was no way we could find someone on such short notice. We decided to hire the comedian Modi so at least our VIP room had something special. But what would we tell everyone who purchased tickets just to see Joan? We opted for the truth.
We sent out a mass e-mail to all our guests:
“Tomorrow night is the big night! We are so excited about the Couture for a Cause event that we have been working on for months. Life is unpredictable and although our event focuses on the joys of life, sometimes sorrows are inevitable. It is on that note we regret to inform you of the passing of Joan Rivers’s sister earlier today. We at Couture for a Cause would like to offer our condolences to Joan and her family, and sadly, for our event, her presence will be missed. But the good news is, the show must go on . . .
“If anyone feels that they would like a refund, please e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org with the e-mail you used to pay for the ticket and the name your ticket is under and your money will be refunded.”
And here’s where the beauty and kindness of the Five Towns women came through. Out of 600+ guests only 10 asked for a refund. The show did go on! And it was a night to remember. The clothing was spectacular. The raffles were incredible. Everyone had a blast and lots of money was raised for Renewal and Shirat Devorah (a charity we decided to add so we could help a local woman suffering from ALS).
Now, Joan had every right to move on and not think about our little event. Many celebrities would do exactly that. But true to her word, she decided to come through for us at a smaller exclusive event in NYC for our VIPs who had originally paid $500 to meet her. Until Joan stepped out of her car, we were not sure if this would come to fruition. But she came dressed in a dazzling silver jacket, looking glamorous. She hung around for almost two hours taking pictures with every guest and schmoozing. She was gracious, complimentary, and hilarious. Everyone left feeling great and we were so grateful CFAC didn’t disappoint our guests.
I gained a newfound respect for her, noting her work ethic and knowing she did this at no cost, out of the goodness of her heart for her friend. But my respect for her reached a whole new level over a year later when I saw the viral video of her voicing her support for Israel. Not only was it funny, it was incredibly brave. During a time when supporting Israel was politically incorrect and unpopular, Joan, being Joan, didn’t give a hoot and like always, said it like it is. Excitedly I shared this video on the Couture Facebook page because we feel a connection to her and we were proud of her.
During the VIP event, Joan offered to attend our next event, and though we made a vow never to advertise any celebrity again due to the unpredictable nature of doing so, we were going to take her up on the offer.
Sadly, she passed away at 81. She was vibrant and healthy and had every single one of her faculties till the end, and she had so much more to give. We will forever remember the night we met her, how she came through for us in the end, and how even when she couldn’t attend she was responsible for making our event a tremendous success. Baruch Dayan Ha’emet. v
CFAC is a nonprofit Jewish organization started by childhood friends Esther Silber-Berg and Michal Weinstein in efforts to aid various Jewish charities locally and in Israel. For more information, visit www.coutureforacauseny.com.