UCLA Hillel special events coordinator Guy Kochlani was born in Tel Aviv, but he was never actively involved in supporting Israel -- until the day three years ago when a group of Palestinian students interrupted the Yom HaAtzmaut celebration on campus.
"I couldn't believe it -- these 15 guys dressed in black militia garb came storming across campus, shouting and carrying signs reading, 'You Nazis, You killers!'" Kochlani recalled. "It didn't stop the other [Jewish] students, they just kept on dancing, but it stopped me cold. That was my breaking point."
Kochlani is one of the planners of this year's Israel Independence Day Celebration Festival to be held Sunday, May 11 in Woodley Park in Encino. In the three years since the incident on campus, he has co-founded two groups for Israeli college students -- Bruinpac, which became Bruins for Israel, and the social group Israelis Biyachad -- and was chair of the 55th Israel Independence Day Block Party at UCLA held May 7. He also joined the board of both the Israeli Festival's planning committee and the Council for Israel Community, a local political action group that seeks to promote positive images of Israel in the media.
Kochlani, 23, hopes the Israeli Festival will attract more young people. Last year, he helped institute a teen stage (which will also appear at this year's event) featuring popular Israeli DJs cranking out a variety of music, from house and hip hop to Israeli pop. This year, he will direct the festival's fashion show on the main stage at 3 p.m.
The all-day festival commemorates Israel's 55th Independence Day and includes activities for all ages. There will be a children's village featuring rides, an arts-and-crafts area and a petting zoo, along with live musical performances and magic shows. An Israeli Pavilion, sponsored by the Israeli Consulate, will showcase music and art from across Jewish culture. Visitors can indulge in a variety of ethnic food, such as schwarma, falafel and kabobs, or stroll through the marketplace for Israeli artwork, jewelry and Judaica.
Dignitaries participating in this year's ceremony will include Gov. Gray Davis, Reps. Howard Berman (D-North Hollywood) and Brad Sherman (D-Sherman Oaks), Consul General of Israel in Los Angeles Yuval Rotem and Los Angeles City Attorney Rocky Delgadillo.
During the ceremony, Los Angeles County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky will be honored as a "distinguished friend of the Israeli community."
This is the festival's third year in Encino, where it moved after many years at Pan Pacific Park in Los Angeles. The festival usually attracts around 40,000 people, said organizers, who expect even larger crowds this year.
Festival chair Itzik Glazer said that this year's festival has expanded to include nearby Lake Balboa Park area, as well as Woodley Park, increasing vendor space and parking. The number of vendors for 2003 has more than doubled, from 120 last year to 250 this year, spurring festival organizers to create an "Israel street" market area. Security for the event was also revamped, Glazer said.
"The private company working for us will have more people on staff," he said. "All of the park will be fenced, and because we're busing people from the Lake Balboa parking lot [to the main festival area], on each bus there will be a security guard. We also worked with the police [the West Valley Division of the Los Angeles Police Department], so there will be more security people inside and more police outside."
Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles President John Fishel, who is honorary chair of the Israeli Festival, said a demonstration in support of Israel is more important now than ever.
"This is an opportunity for the residents of the second-largest Jewish community in the country to come out in force, to show that we stand strongly with Israel at this critical time," Fishel said.
Kochlani agreed that the State of Israel needs a powerful demonstration of support from Angelenos, and he hoped that people along the political spectrum can put their feelings about the road map aside for the sake of the festival.
"Any event you do for Israel, politics are included -- it just comes with the package," Kochlani said. "But we're trying to keep the event in the center, so both sides can enjoy it."
The Israel Festival will take place Sunday, May 11 from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. at Woodley Park, corner of Victory Boulevard and Woodley Avenue in Encino. Admission is $3 per person and parking is free. For more information, call (818) 757-0123 or visit www.israelfestival.com.