Jewish Journal

Can L.A. support an Israel Festival?

by Julie Gruenbaum Fax

Posted on May. 17, 2011 at 2:38 pm

This year, for the first time in decades, Israel Independence Day came and went without a major public celebration in Los Angeles, and local Jewish leaders are vowing that won’t happen again.

“We are completely committed to having a communitywide celebration for Israel’s Independence Day,” said Jay Sanderson, president and CEO of The Jewish Federation of Greater of Los Angeles. “We need to create something that is really a community event, something people X off on their calendars and look forward to and talk about afterward.”

Just two weeks before the planned May 15 event, organizers canceled the annual Israel Festival in Woodley Park, citing financial troubles.

“We’ve gotten a lot of phone calls from people who are upset and amazed that we had to cancel this year,” said Yoram Gutman, executive director of the Israel Independence Day Festival.

In Los Angeles, the Jewish community has celebrated Israel’s birthday with a festival since the early 1970s. For the last 18 years, the festival has been run by an independent nonprofit, known as the Israel Independence Day Festival, with some financial support from the Jewish Federation. But over the last five years, attendance at the festival has been dwindling, along with revenue and support from the broader community.

Last year’s festival left the organization with a debt of $45,000 after the city unexpectedly charged fees for previously waived expenses for traffic diversion and fire and police services. The 2010 festival cost $175,000 to produce, even before the city tacked on $43,000. So this year, after learning that The Jewish Federation declined to renew the $20,000 of support it traditionally has given, organizers determined they could not go forward with the festival.

The festival’s viability should not have been so dependent on one sponsor, Sanderson said.

“The fact that we stopped sponsoring was not the only contributor to the festival not continuing,” Sanderson said. “Their financial issues went beyond our support.”

Paid attendance at the Israel Festival shrank from 17,000 in 2006 to less than 9,000 in 2010, according to Gutman. Even the 2008 celebration for Israel’s 60th, which cost $346,000 to produce, saw a drop to 12,000 paid attendees (Gutman said an additional 2,000 vendors, entertainers and volunteers usually attend free of charge). There were fewer booths last year than any previous year – 138, compared to 204 in 2007 — but the entrance fee rose from $5 to $8.

Sanderson said the decision not to contribute came as Federation moves away from a model where it gives a little money to everyone and is instead refocusing its resources. 

“The Jewish Federation is no longer in the sponsorship business. We don’t feel that is the best way to use our donors’ money,” Sanderson said. “We are in the business of building collaboration and partnership.”

Sanderson said Federation is interested in working with other organizations to produce an Israel festival that is more impactful, broad based and appealing than the current festival.

“The Israel Festival certainly attracted a large number of people, but as the years went on, the geographic diversity was lacking,” Sanderson said, with the Valley population and the Orthodox and Israeli communities overrepresented, in Federation’s view.

He also didn’t see buy-in from other Jewish and Israel-oriented organizations, which despite sponsoring booths at the event, were not involved in its conceptualization or planning.

Shoham Nicolet, executive director of the Israeli Leadership Council (ILC), agrees with Sanderson’s assessment. ILC sponsored the Israel Festival in 2008 to celebrate Israel’s 60th birthday but since then has not been involved with the festival.

“The needs of the community change, and the focus changes, and you cannot assume that you can do the same thing again and again and get the same results,” Nicolet said. “You always need to be very sensitive and listen to what the community wants.”

He said he would like to see broader involvement in shaping the festival.

“It cannot be a small group of people deciding. If it’s a community event, it should belong to the community, and the community should feel ownership and feel they are a part of it,” he said.

The Israel Festival has a board of 12 members, and an additional 15 to 20 people who plan the festival, most of them Israeli.

While the Israeli Consulate takes a large booth at the festival, it focuses its resources on creating its own invitation-only Yom HaAtzmaut celebration for the international diplomatic corps and top civic leaders, according to Jacob Dayan, the consul general in Los Angeles.

Sanderson, in collaboration with ILC, has pinned Federation’s focus on reviving the Israel Walk Festival, which through the 1970s and ’80s drew thousands of Angelenos for an 18K walk-a-thon starting in the Beverly-Fairfax area and ending in a day-long festival at Rancho Park in Cheviot Hills. Federation sponsored the walk-a-thon and ran it through its youth department; at the time, chairing the festival was considered a top leadership post, according to Stephen Sass, president of the Jewish Historical Society of Southern California.

In 1985, the Los Angeles Times reported that 5,000 people joined the walk. While in 1986 that number was down to 1,000, as many as 50,000 people attended the festival at Rancho Park that year, according to the L.A. Times.

“For that generation of us who grew up in Los Angeles, the Israel Walk Festival was a significant identity-forming event,” Sass said. “You saw all your friends there, and there was folk dancing, and this public celebration of being Jewish and connecting with Israel.”

When Federation downsized in the early 1990s, the festival — which had already dropped the walk portion of the event — went through a transition period before landing with a group of Israelis that had begun a community Yom HaAtzmaut celebration in the late 1980s. That group became the Israel Independence Day Festival, and, in 1995, it hired Gutman to produce the event. Gutman was paid $38,500 in 2008, but he says he has not taken any salary since November 2009, because the organization still owes money to vendors. He spends around 70 percent of his time on the festival and also runs a business that sells agricultural irrigation products.

The festival moved to Woodley Park in 2001, and in 2002 started charging admission. This year, admission would have been as high as $15 a person to cover costs, Gutman said.

That fee hike would have come despite downsizing the event.

Organizers already had cut the budget from $175,000 to $101,000 for the planned 2011 festival, eliminating features like the skydivers, who for the last several years evoked images of Israeli paratroopers when they landed in the festival. Organizers also had opted not to close off Woodley Avenue, and for the past three years had used local talent rather than shipping in marquee entertainers from Israel, which had been a draw for Israeli Angelenos in the past.

Gutman says he is already beginning to plan for a fully revitalized festival on April 29, 2012. But what isn’t clear is whether that festival will be in collaboration or in competition with a revived Israel Walk Festival, which has not yet been calendared.

“If [Gutman] is interested in being part of a larger operation that involves lots of organizations and, hopefully, synagogues in the community, we would love to have him be involved. If he’s interested in doing his own thing, that is not going to work,” Sanderson said.

Gutman said he would be open to conversation.

Whether the community is up for a walk festival, given the fraught climate surrounding Israel, is another question.

“What is unfortunate is that at a time when Israel needs its friends and allies to be standing tall with it, and at a time when the community itself doesn’t have a lot of opportunities to get together, we lost the festival,” Sass said. But, he added, reviving the walk may be tricky.

“In those days, in the ’70s and ’80s, things were much more uncomplicated, there was much greater unanimity about supporting Israel, and I think that also plays a part,” Sass said.

Sanderson believes a large show of support is essential.

“Given where everything is and given what is going on in terms of support for Israel, there has never been a more important time to do a big, communitywide event,” Sanderson said.

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