Above: Steve Selig (center) presents the award named for his parents to Spring and Tom Asher.
Jews need to stay on the same page when it comes to the sacredness of U.S.-Israeli relations and victory in a war of values, American Jewish Committee CEO David Harris told a crowd of 375 gathered at the glitzy, renovated Atlanta History Center on Wednesday night, May 18.
The occasion, which included the Fourth Ward Afro Klezmer Orchestra playing outside to welcome the guests, was AJC Atlanta’s annual Selig Distinguished Service Award dinner, honoring Spring and Tom Asher.
“We have emerged as the world’s foremost global Jewish nongovernmental organization,” said Harris, once described by Shimon Peres as the “foreign minister of the Jewish people.”
He complimented Atlanta’s multigenerational engagement — Jewish extended families staying involved — and recognized partnerships with India, Japan and Canada, whose consuls general joined Israeli Consul General Judith Varnai Shorer at the dinner.
Harris joked about America’s new political players: a non-Jewish presidential candidate (Donald Trump) who has Jewish grandchildren, a Jewish candidate (Bernie Sanders) who has non-Jewish grandchildren and a non-Jewish candidate (Hillary Clinton) whose grandchildren are undetermined.
Paying tribute to the Ashers, AJC Atlanta President Greg Averbuch said: “This year we celebrate 110 years of American Jewish Committee as a bridge builder and global Jewish advocate. This speaks very true of the Ashers, who have been deeply involved since the 1970s and are very active not only in the local Jewish community, but have impacted the greater Atlanta community.”
Presenting the award was Steve Selig, a past chapter president, whose parents, Caroline Massell Selig and Simon S. Selig Jr., spent their lives strengthening academic, cultural and civic institutions while building bridges of understanding among people of all races and religions.
Selig, as convivial as ever, quipped about George Burns and Yogi Berra and concluded that “dignity is not possessing honors but deserving them” when comparing the Ashers to dependable pillars on a porch.
An upbeat video started with a roundtable of family and friends considering the Ashers’ charm and commitment. Playwright Alfred Uhry, a childhood friend of Tom’s in Druid Hills, boasted about Tom’s Standard Club backhand, and giggling Asher grandchildren repeated that they were proud to be Jewish.
Tom spoke about his grandfather Jacob Elsas, who was abandoned by his father in Germany, “worked harder to get farther,” moved to the United States as a peddler and joined the Union Army, which brought him to the South. He made his way to Atlanta, where he did such good deeds as contributing to the Hebrew orphans home and helping Georgia Tech provide a college experience for the disabled. Tom has nurtured such philanthropy.
He also mentioned his Uncle Fritz, who was executed as a conspirator in the attempted overthrow of Hitler.
The Ashers — he from the South with German ancestry, she from the North with Eastern European roots — met at Cornell more than 56 years ago.
Spring Asher, who is known for coaching public speaking, said in advance of the ceremony, “To be honored by AJC is something really special, but to be acknowledged by the Selig Award, considering what that family has meant to the city, is all the more meaningful.”
Spring said she and her husband have been active with AJC Atlanta since the late 1950s. “We traveled to both Germany and Israel with AJC,” she said. “Because AJC has offices in those countries as well as many others, their deep contacts and relationships really opened our eyes to the rest of the world.”
The theme of the evening was “People do business with people they like,” which is what AJC does in building long-term relationships. For example, AJC cultivated a friendship with Kasim Reed through its Black-Jewish Coalition long before he became Atlanta’s mayor.
“With offices all around the world, AJC has the know-how to better understand anti-Semitism and how to combat it,” Spring said. “As a result, it has been one of the world’s most important voices for human dignity.”
Photos by Marcia Caller Jaffe