Concert concept reaps rewards for Israel’s Magen David Adom

Not only are Barbara Zemel and Jay Bycer fast friends – but they are also the formidable duo responsible in good part for the local success of Arizona Friends of Magen David Adom, (Israel’s Red Cross), the Jewish state’s emergency response, ambulance and blood center.

The back story: Jay, along with his wife, Karen, volunteered to serve on the committee, some 16 years ago, when the organization was honoring Frances and Irving Horn with its Humanitarian Award. The Bycers knew and respected the couple through their mutual membership in Beth El Congregation. Barbara and her husband, Barry, already were involved as the Horns were Barbara’s much-loved parents.

Recognizing hard-working volunteers, and following the event, the regional director of AFMDA, “Sat us down,” Barbara recalls, “and told us the organization was in the process of restructuring the local chapter from a small group with no dues to a national fundraising format with larger events.”

“Barb and I were invited to serve as co-presidents of the new entity, “Jay explains. “We signed on and jumped right in!” Barbara interjects with a laugh, “We worked our tushies off!”

Their first event, in 2003, attracted an audience of 800 at Scottsdale Center for the Arts. They utilized a concept shared with them by former Beth El Cantor Marc Philippe: a musical evening dedicated to the works of Jewish composers, combining education, enrichment and entertainment.

With melodies performed by the Judaic Cultural Orchestra of Arizona, the evening was a huge success, Jay says. ”So much so that we planned and presented another sold-out concert at the same venue only six months later!”

Cheryl Hammerman is credited with writing the scripts that tie together the themes for each of the past five sold out concerts. These include “A Night with Oscar,” “Gershwin to Garfunkel, Yiddish to Broadway,” and “Radio Days, Thirties, Forties and Fifties.” Bruce Pulk, conductor of the Phoenix Symphony, is the musical arranger.

One unexpected result was a telephone call the team received from a local philanthropist early on who was so impressed by their efforts and what she learned about the organization that she paid the price to purchase an ambulance.

Other AFMDA-inspired projects initiated by the local group include educational programs at local Jewish schools and for sale greeting cards and calendars created by students.

To have their donors “feel connected,” Jay says, “we have come up each time with a project specific to MDA needs.” This year proceeds are earmarked for construction of the Marcus National Blood Services Center, the first underground, shielded blood center in the world. It is slated for completion next year.

According to information disseminated by American Friends of Magen David Adom, the organization supplies 97% of the blood used by Israeli hospitals and 100% of the blood needed by the Israel Defense Forces. It is MDA’s role to ensure all Israelis get the blood they need – when they need it.

The local chapter, with five concerts behind them, has raised more than $250,000 and has been the catalyst for the donations of four ambulances.

Their most recent event was held in 2010. “Medical issues forced us to take a lengthy hiatus,” Jay says. “We are a small organization, and sometimes life gets in the way. But we are coming back stronger than ever!”

At the end of the day,” Barbara says, “I am honoring the legacy my parents handed down to me. My Dad was the major motivator in Phoenix for this organization in the early days. And he was a ‘music man.’ He played the harmonica and the banjo and sang in the Beth El Orchestra.” Both parents, she says, “really were dedicated to this wonderful cause.”

Jay, a self-described “ardent Zionist” who served for several years on AFMDA’s national board, observes that the community here “has lots of Jewish organizations. We wanted to create something different – that specifically would relate to saving lives.” To the best of his knowledge, Jay says with pride, this particular program is unique nationwide.

The concert this year, slated for Monday evening, Jan. 29 at the Tempe Center for the Arts, is supported in part by three corporate sponsors, London Gold, Helix Construction and the Heart and Vascular Center. It will feature television’s musical melodies performed by members of the Phoenix Symphony’s Grand Salon plus area vocalists and dancers.

To purchase tickets, contact the Tempe Center for the Arts box office at 480-350-2822, ext. 2 or visit

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