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Guess who’s bringing the Israel Festival back?

L.A.’s Israeli leaders take Yom HaAtzmaut celebration to Rancho Park

by Jonah Lowenfeld

April 25, 2012 | 5:12 pm

Annual Israel festivals were held in the San Fernando Valley until 2010. Here celebrants crowd the main performance stage in 2005.  Photo by Danna Kinsky

Annual Israel festivals were held in the San Fernando Valley until 2010. Here celebrants crowd the main performance stage in 2005. Photo by Danna Kinsky

One adult ticket to this Sunday’s newly relaunched Celebrate Israel Festival in Rancho Park (purchased online in advance): $15.

Transforming the Cheviot Hills Recreation Center for the Israel-themed blowout party, the biggest of its kind in the United States: $800,000 and counting.

The possibility that thousands of Israeli-Americans and American Jews will come to this park near Century City and not only eat falafel, dance to Israeli pop songs and ride the Ferris wheel but also leave with a renewed appreciation for Israel and a feeling of connectedness to Jewish Los Angeles:  Priceless, according to Naty Saidoff.

Saidoff, an Israeli Leadership Council (ILC) board member, and his wife, Debbie, and other leaders and staff from the ILC — all of them Israeli-Americans — have donated their own money to the effort and have been working day and night lately to make sure that every aspect of the festival is ready. “I knew it had to happen,” he said. “And I knew it had to happen on the Westside.”

Saidoff and the ILC board are trying to make up for last year’s embarrassment, when Los Angeles’ annual Israel Independence Day Festival was canceled at the last minute. It had been a mostly volunteer-driven event and had been taking place in different locations for the better part of the previous two decades, in recent years in Woodley Park in the San Fernando Valley.

“Los Angeles was the only big city in the country — maybe the world — where, despite having great Jewish organizations, people were not able to get their act together to have something for Israel,” Saidoff said of the 2011 debacle.

The ILC had given money to support the 2008 festival, when Israel marked its 60th birthday, but after the Israel Independence Day Festival’s cancellation in 2011 — due primarily to financial difficulties, first and foremost, but also to strained relations between the organizers and the major Jewish organizations that had previously acted as the festival’s co-sponsors — Saidoff and his fellow board members decided in December 2011 to take it upon themselves to organize an entirely new festival in a new location.

“People from the city, they don’t go to the Valley,” Saidoff said, explaining why he insisted on locating the relaunched Celebrate Israel festival on the Westside. Part of the ILC’s mission is to strengthen connections between the Israeli-American and American Jewish communities in Los Angeles that otherwise interact only very occasionally.

Unlike Woodley Park, the Cheviot Hills Recreation Center is not well served by public transportation, so bringing thousands of Israeli-Americans and Jews to the recreation center that sits on the northern edge of the leafy Rancho Park neighborhood will involve some significant logistical challenges.

The ILC has secured more than 10,000 privately owned parking spaces, hired buses to run continuous shuttle service from lots in Century City to the park and back, and had to garner support for the event from the local neighborhood council, a group not known for welcoming large events into the large park in its backyard.

“They knew that we were for real,” Saidoff said, explaining why the Westside Neighborhood Council, which initially expressed “concern” about the possibility of “neighborhood intrusion” on the day of the festival, ultimately voted 11-1 in favor of the festival. “They knew that we had something good.”

Even had they wanted to stop the event from taking over the park, it’s not clear that the neighborhood group could have done so. The ILC leaders have powerful voices in city government to speak on their behalf, including City Councilman Paul Koretz, whose district includes the recreation center, and Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa.

“The mayor is very instrumental in making sure this festival is happening,” ILC board member Shawn Evenhaim said in February. Evenhaim, who helped found the group in 2007, was named the group’s chairman at the end of March.

“He was at my house for Rosh Hashanah,” Evenhaim said of Villaraigosa. “That’s when I spoke to him and said we want to do a festival.”

Even with the support of high-placed officials, the ILC leaders — and Saidoff in particular — appear to have acted in a gutsy way to get the festival launched as quickly as they have.

“We had already signed the contracts, and there were hundreds of thousands of dollars that had already been spent, and we never had the permits,” Saidoff said in mid-April, just after the various city agencies actually signed off on the permits for the event. “We didn’t have the luxury of time. We started working on it right before Christmas, and normally it would take two years to put something like this together.”

Saidoff, who runs a commercial real estate holding company, is used to taking on projects where the outcome is uncertain. “They call it venture capital because it is an adventure,” he said.

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