There were no Lag B’Omer bonfires blazing on the Santa Monica Pier on Monday night, but the flashing neon lights of carnival rides illuminated the night sky for a communitywide gathering of Sephardic Jews. No potatoes were roasted in a fire pit, but skewers of kosher beef sizzled on a grill. And though children were not running around in fields wielding bows and arrows, a Lag B’Omer tradition, they were squirting water guns, shooting hoops and tossing rings.
More than 2,000 people, mostly young Jewish families from the Sephardic community, turned out to celebrate one of the most festive and cheery holidays on the Jewish calendar at an event organized by the youth group Sephardic Tradition and Recreation (STAR), in an unprecedented coalition of local Sephardic synagogues and organizations.
The pier was an ideal location for a family-oriented Lag B’Omer festival. Prepaid tickets sold for $10, while admission at the gate was $20; a glatt kosher food court was bustling throughout the evening and as kippah-wearing kids scrambled about from one game to the next, their parents greeted neighbors and synagogue acquaintances.
Pini Cohen’s spirited Mizrachic singing could be heard as soon as you stepped on the pier’s wooden planks. The crooner, famous for his Thursday night sing-alongs at what used to be Tempo restaurant, entertained the crowd with covers of popular Sephardic ballads, and DJ Moshe H’Yafe kept the mood going with upbeat songs between Cohen’s sets.
Jewish unity is a major theme of Lag B’Omer, and the event marked the largest collaboration of Los Angeles’ Sephardic Jewish organizations in recent memory.
“This is the first time we’ve really come together on such a scale,” said an ebullient Rabbi Menachem Weiss, executive director of STAR. “We did this several years ago, in 2006, but this year is so much bigger.” They’re hoping to make this an annual event for the Sephardic community, he said.
Approximately 18 synagogues and numerous individual donors gave financial and organizational support to the effort, including Nessah Synagogue, Maimonides Academy, Sephardic Temple Tifereth Israel, West Coast Torah Center and Shaarey Yerushalayim.
“We’re trying to teach our children to be proud Jews,” said Hyman Jebb Levy, who established STAR in 1997 to create more programming for young Sephardic Jews. At 83, Levy recently celebrated his second bar mitzvah, and he treats the kids in the youth group, who range in age from 7 to 18, like his grandchildren. A steady stream of kids, from toddlers to teens, stopped to give Levy hugs, kisses and their secret handshake.
“It’s a beautiful event,” one father said to Levy. “A lot of simcha. May such simcha be returned to you tenfold.”
“They’re the reward,” Levy said, pointing to the children. “They are the reason we are doing all of this.”