There was good news and bad news when Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's office phoned Yoram Gutman, executive director of Israel's 56th Independence Day Festival, three weeks ago.
The bad news was that the governor would be unable to attend the festival May 2 at Woodley Park in Van Nuys. The good news was why he was unavailable: He was scheduled to be in Israel for an official visit May 2.
That the governor was seriously considering a festival appearance -- and that his predecessor did so in recent years -- conveys just how far the event has come since its inception as a Yom HaAtzmaut concert at Scottish Rite Temple in 1988.
This year, an estimated 50,000 participants are expected to turn out for the celebration, which is perhaps the largest of its kind in the world, according to Yariv Ovadia of the Consulate General of Israel in Los Angeles. The festivities will include performances by prominent Israel-based pop singers such as Avihu Medina and a ceremony, emceed by KABC talk radio host Larry Elder, with officials such as Rep. Howard Berman (D-Van Nuys) and state Sen. Richard Alarcon (D-Van Nuys).
The lineup not only indicates the success of the event, but of Los Angeles' Israeli community. When the festival began in the 1980s, only about 12,000 Israeli-born Jews lived here, according to Pini Herman of Phillips & Herman Demographic Research.
"Back then, the Israeli community was a source of shame and embarrassment to official Israeli segments in town," Herman said.
Attitudes changed as surveys continued to reveal that significant numbers of Israelis would leave the Jewish state if they could, due to political and economic woes. Another reason for the attitude shift: Growing numbers of Israelis in Los Angeles, although current estimates widely vary. Herman believes 26,200 Angelenos identify themselves as Israeli, according to 1997's "Los Angeles Jewish Population Survey"; others, like Ovadia, feel the statistic could be closer to 100,000.
Whatever the numbers, these Israelis are often better educated and more Jewishly affiliated than indigenous Jews, according to Herman.
"They come here with more Jewish knowledge and affinity than is usually found in the American Jewish population," he said. They are often professionals who disproportionately send their children to Jewish day school and who tend to live in heavily Jewish areas such as the Valley and Fairfax district.
But while longtime residents are highly integrated into the American Jewish community, where they're now considered "a source of support," Herman said, "they also like to be with 'landsmen.'" Thus they join groups such as the Hebrew-speaking Shalom Lodge of B'nai B'rith and gather at Israeli restaurants such as Haifa and Tempo.
It was a group of four such Israelis who gathered to plan the first festival 16 years ago, according to co-founder Mordechai Avidan, who owns a Woodland Hills accounting firm. In the late 1980s, he said, he and his friends became chagrined when the organized Jewish community stopped observing Yom HaAtzmaut for a time.
"For a couple years, the [holiday] just disappeared, and that made us crazy," he said.
Gutman, a Reseda businessman who became the festival's executive director in 1994, agreed.
"We felt Israel Independence Day should be as important to American Jews as the Fourth of July," he said.
In 1988, Avidan and his friends hired Israeli performers for a Yom HaAtzmaut show at the Scottish Rite Temple. Fifteen hundred people turned out for the concert, prompting the founders to convince the North Valley Jewish Community Center (NVJCC) in Granada Hills to host a more ambitious event (more like a picnic with entertainment) the following year.
By 1990, the crowd had grown to 2,000 -- too big for the NVJCC -- so the festival moved to larger venues such as Hansen Dam Park, drawing 15,000 participants by the late 1990s.
The overwhelming majority of them were Israeli until the 50th anniversary celebration in 1998, when The Jewish Federation got involved as a major sponsor and brought in significant segments of the organized Jewish community, Gutman said. The event, which drew about 50,000 participants, 40 percent of them American, made media headlines and put the festival on the proverbial map.
From 1998 on, the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department Golden Star Skydiving Team has kicked off each official ceremony by unfolding giant American and Israeli flags in the air. This year's festival will feature a Miss L.A./Israel beauty pageant; an amusement park for children; approximately 250 food, Judaica and Jewish organizational booths; and Jewish world music to honor non-Israeli participants (in recent years, the crowd has included several thousand Russian and Persian Jews).
"For Israelis, the festival is like going home for a day, but it's also perhaps the largest annual Jewish community event in Los Angeles," Gutman said. "It's one day that the diverse elements of the Jewish community really come together. And it's almost entirely planned by volunteers, Israelis living in L.A."
Yet even as the festival has grown, there have been problems to overcome. For example, the 2003 celebration took place on Mother's Day, which decreased attendance by approximately 5,000 people, according to Gutman.
"Although the event falls on Mother's Day every few years, we won't make that mistake again," he said. "Instead, we'll postpone the festival by an additional week."
Security has also been a major concern, especially after the Sept. 11 tragedy and the subsequent rise in suicide bombings. This year, 100 Los Angeles Police Department officers and 120 private security guards will attend; a chain-link fence will be erected around Woodley Park; metal detectors will be installed at the entrance; and dogs will inspect the area before doors open at 10 a.m.
Despite the focus on security, the festival aims to promote a different side of the Jewish state than appears on CNN.
"It's an opportunity for people to learn a bit more of what is Israel, the colors, tastes and sounds, not just the news," Ovadia said. "You don't see much that is political, which is a good thing, because there is so much more to Israel than politics."
While the turnout sends a message that there is great local support for Israel, the event is for the entire Jewish community, according to Ovadia.
"It's the Israel Independence Day Festival, not the Israeli community's festival," he said.
The festivities run from 10 a.m.-7 p.m. on Sunday, May 2, at Woodley Park on Woodley Avenue (west of the 405 between Victory and Burbank boulevards). Parking is free; admission is $4. For more information, call (800) 644-9505 or visit www.israelfestival.com .
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