Some 40,000 people are expected to converge on the grounds of Pierce College for the June 1 Valley Jewish Festival. Photo by Bill Aron
The Valley Jewish Festival has become a celebration of Jewish pride
By Ruth Stroud, Staff Writer
Forty thousand fair-goers are expected to converge on the grounds of Los Angeles Pierce College in Woodland Hills, Sunday, June 1, for the Valley Jewish Festival. Along with the sunshine, they will absorb the sounds of klezmer, Israeli rock and Ladino music; the smells and tastes of a huge array of kosher food; the wit and wisdom of several learned rabbis; and the joys of Jewish crafts and traditions. All this, in the company of family and friends -- some old, some new and some rediscovered.
For the Jewish Federation/Valley Alliance, which oversees the complex production of this biennial fete, the festival is enormously significant, possibly second only to Super Sunday in importance -- but without the fund-raising component.
"It's a cornerstone event for us," said Valley Alliance Executive Director Jack Mayer. "We're in the community-building business. I can't think of a better way to get people together."
Mayer credits two community activists, Gladys Sturman and Sandy Abouaf, as the festival's proud godmothers. The story goes something like this:
In 1986, Sturman had a brainstorm. The West Valley Kehillah, a group of about 20 Jewish organizations in the San Fernando Valley, had, for several years, been staging a popular annual event called the Shtetl Fair at the old West Valley Jewish Community Center. About 2,000 to 3,000 people would mill about the grounds, sampling homemade breads and soups and enjoying the Yiddish films and displays. Since the fair was such a success in the West Valley, Sturman thought, why not expand it to the entire valley -- and possibly beyond? All it would take would be a little money and some good old-fashioned elbow grease -- or so she imagined. Sturman approached Mayer, at that time the regional director of the San Fernando Valley Region of the Jewish Federation, the precursor to the Valley Alliance.
Mayer put Sturman in touch with Abouaf, another Valley resident and Jewish community activist, with a different sort of grand idea. Abouaf, who was deeply involved in helping to free Soviet Jews at that time and had led several missions to the Soviet Union, wanted to mobilize Valley Jews in support of this cause and, like Sturman, also hoped to create a sense of unity among Jews "on the other side of the hill."
"So the two of us met," Sturman said. "We decided, with a little financial help from the Federation, we could put on a major festival with two aspects to it. From Sandy's point of view, it was social action, to get a huge petition signed to free the Soviet Jews -- which, indeed, happened. From my side, it was to throw a large Valley-wide block party. I thought it would be a great community-building event."
And it was. The first Exodus Festival, as the event was then called, drew more than 20,000 people to Pierce College. Even Mayor Tom Bradley showed up, a little reluctantly at first, Sturman thought. "But, as soon as he stepped out of his car and saw all those people, he lit up."
The following year, 1987, about 40,000 people came to the festival, which again blended a social-action theme -- this time caring for the homeless and hungry -- with the festive block party aspect. From then on, the event took place every other year, alternating with the Walk Festival (later called the Los Angeles Jewish Festival) -- another large gathering sponsored by the Jewish Federation, which took place in Rancho Park in West Los Angeles until it was discontinued in 1992. In 1995, the Exodus Festival became the Valley Jewish Festival.
Festival Chair Dan Shuster with his great-nephew Jonathon Lipnicki. Although Chair Dan Shuster insists that the festival is truly intended for the entire Southern California Jewish community and draws participants from a 75-mile radius, stretching from Santa Barbara to Orange County, the gala event has retained a distinct Valley flavor, which reflects not only its origin and location but the background of most of its 500 or so volunteers and its Valley Alliance staff. Still, the hope is, Mayer said, that a Jewish festival will be reinstated on the Westside someday. "What we want to do is bring people together across the greater community of Los Angeles," he said.
Over time, the social-action aspect of the Valley Jewish Festival has become less defined, although there will be no shortage of Jewish organizations this year with burning issues on their agendas. But also on hand will be synagogues, Jewish day schools, Jewish community centers, Jewish dating services, Jewish genealogists, summer camps, insurance companies and mortuaries. It is, said Sturman, "a party with a purpose." Every other year, it draws disparate groups together: Orthodox, Reform, Conservative, Recon-structionist, Secular Humanists, Zionists, Chabad -- and none of the above. "It's good for the community to see each other once a year or every other year," Sturman said. "It's like a family reunion." But beyond that, she added, it's also a place for the unaffiliated to go and feel part of the Jewish community. "My suspicion is that at least 40 percent or 50 percent of the people who come are unaffiliated," she said. "It's their only contact with the Jewish community."
The theme of the current festival, "Tradition," has a lot of resonance for many Jews not only in the five-valley area served by the Valley Alliance but throughout greater Los Angeles, said Abouaf. "I think there is a big focus today on the joys of being Jewish, on what we can get out of it and what we want to pass on to our children," she said.
In Southern California, where the Jewish community tends to be fragmented by distance and ideology, most Jewish institutions are concerned about building their own individual strength and resources rather than working together. "Sometimes, it's harder to think about broader community issues, and about creating a sense of Klal Yisroel," Mayer said. Building that feeling of unity is elusive, but perhaps even more essential to the Jews of Los Angeles than elsewhere because of the city's sprawling nature and the shallow generational roots of its population.
"It's harder for people to know one another here, to feel a sense of camaraderie," Mayer said. But, at least for one day, the difficulties and divisions are put aside at this giant Jewish block party. Ultimately, Mayer said, the Valley Jewish Festival is not a Valley thing but a citywide "celebration of Jewish pride and our resiliency as a community."