This year’s Valley of the Sun JCC (The J) fundraising gala featured star-studded appearances and honored a giant in the history of pro baseball with a new award.

The J presented former Major League Baseball Commissioner Bud Selig and his wife, Sue, with the inaugural William S. Levine Family Community Excellence Award. The award is named after local philanthropist Levine, who donated the funds to open The J’s home, the Ina Levine Jewish Community Center, which is named for his late first wife.

The Seligs were honored for their continuous philanthropic involvement with several community organizations. Although the couple is originally from Milwaukee, Wisconsin, they now have a second home in the Valley, where they’ve supported local entities like the Phoenix Art Museum.

“This award represents community involvement, social responsibility and care for our fellow citizen,” Selig said in his acceptance speech. “I believe that baseball is a social institution with important social responsibilities that have shaped the nation.”

Selig added that baseball is the most American game and he cited Jackie Robinson’s acceptance into the league as an example of its work for positive social change. Robinson’s integration, Selig noted, took place “before President Truman integrated the United States Army, before the historic Brown v. Board of Education and before Rosa Parks took her rightful seat in the front of the bus.”

Selig said he uses the inspiration baseball has given him over the years to continually support the communities in which he lives.

The sold-out event took place Saturday, Dec. 8, at the Arizona Biltmore. Famed former MLB catcher, sportscaster and sitcom actor Bob Uecker emceed the event. Uecker’s career spans more than 60 years. He was inducted into the Radio Hall of Fame in 2001 and the Baseball Hall of Fame in 2003. He warmed up the crowd by telling many humorous stories about his experiences with the Seligs and how their friendship has grown throughout the years. 

The gala ended with former “Tonight Show” host Jay Leno performing an hour of stand-up comedy. After Leno’s performance, auctions were held for a variety of prizes, including a chance to meet the Seligs and Leno after the event. Proceeds from the auction go to fund several scholarships and programs at The J.

Along with the Seligs, the gala also recognized one other person who has given much to the Valley’s Jewish community. JCC Board Member Sara Schneider received the Maya Schulder Rising Star Award. The award is named after Schulder, who died two years ago during a camp trip in Israel when she was 15. The award in her name honors a member of The J’s community who gives of his or her time, talent and skills to help transform the lives of families. The is the second year the Rising Star Award has been handed out.

Schneider’s father, Marty Pear, moved their family to Phoenix in 1987, when he accepted a position as the director of The J. Schneider began her career with The J as director of youth and adult sports. She has held several other positions at The J, including director of adult services as well as development.

Schneider’s sister, Rachel Hoffer, presented the award after Schneider’s children lit the menorah for Chanukah. Hoffer said she believed their father would have been exceptionally proud of Schneider. 

“I always joke that I literally was born and raised in the JCC,” Schneider said before the awards ceremony. “I feel like the JCC and the community has always been there for me, so I feel very honored to be here with the Seligs.” JN 

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