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Annual B’nai Brith athletic charity ends

Jeff Paikin, Mark Tewksbury, Georges St-Pierre, Ben Curtis, Jim Ralph

Like an aging athlete who finally realizes his time has passed, a charity event that honoured high school athletes and raised money for community improvements is ending its run.

The B’nai Brith Sports Celebrity Dinner held its last gathering Jan. 23. It was the 69th staging of event that has raised more than $2.6 million since its founding in 1951.

Jeff Paikin, who chaired the event and has been involved in 35 of the stagings, said it simply doesn’t make financial sense to continue.

“To go on it has to be good math, but as payback for the effort it requires it has stopped making sense,” he said. “If you talk to people in the banquet hall business you see we’re not unique in that regard.”

At its peak the annual event would draw up to 1,200 people, including star athletes, but attendance this year was only 740.

Paikin said several forces have piled onto organizers – competition for entertainment time and money, a sharp drop in the number of volunteers willing to work on the event and the slow loss of the independent business community that once supported such efforts.

He noted that when he got involved – fresh out of university – the organizing committee had 22 members. This year there were only “five or six who were dedicated and one or two who were helpful.”

During his first year organizing the event it earned $15,000. Three years later proceeds had risen to $150,000 through innovations such as gathering corporate sponsors and staging an auction. Over its life the event grew from a dinner in the basement of the local Jewish Community Centre to a social hall in the Adas Israel synagogue to a hotel ballroom to the cavernous Hamilton Convention Centre.

Since then, however, business support has fallen off as the local economy has changed.

“There have been some heavy changes in our corporate demographic, especially in the Jewish community,” he said. “There has been a real erosion of the business community that once would have supported this no matter what.”

The decision to make the 2020 edition of the dinner the last was announced at the end of the January gala.

“We did that so the focus would be on the athletes and not on is,” Paikin said. “Our committee will meet in three weeks to lament a little and see if there is any will to try something else.

“We’ll get everybody together in the same room and see what can be done,” he added.

As chair of the event, Paikin added he is nursing a personal sense of failure because he couldn’t find a way to keep it going.

“I have a real feeling of failure that I couldn’t find someone who was passionate enough to take this on and keep it going,” he said.

The final edition of the event featured appearances mixed-martial artist George St-Pierre, of Montreal; golfer Ben Curtis, winner of four major tournaments including the 2003 British Open; Team Canada hockey gold medallist Tessa Bonhomme; baseball and basketball announcers Dan Shulman and Leafs broadcaster Jim Ralph.

Over the years the event has raised money for charities such as the Beth Tikvah Foundation, operator of group homes for developmentally disabled adults; Food4Kids; Bulldogs Foundation and Mohawk College.