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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.

“The ILC is a very special phenomenon,” said Sagi Balasha, who took over as the organization’s CEO in September 2011. “Usually nonprofits grow as grass-roots organizations. Here it’s the leaders, the wealthy people in the community, who started the organization for the well-being of the entire community.”

Just five years after founding the ILC, this same group of businessmen has already reshaped the organizational landscape of their expatriate community by supporting schools, youth groups and other cultural activities that impact the lives of Israeli-Americans here. But by every accounting, the Celebrate Israel Festival is their largest single endeavor to date.

Evenhaim chaired the ILC’s last major throw-down, a concert at the Gibson Amphitheatre in November 2011 that featured Israeli pop star Moshe Peretz and Matisyahu. Tickets to that concert were heavily subsidized by the ILC because the event also served to launch I.L.Care, an ILC-administered network designed to encourage volunteerism among Israeli-Americans who might not otherwise engage with charitable causes, to guide them to pledge their time to doing good. Each of the 6,000 people who attended that concert had to commit four volunteer hours. (Some will be fulfilling their pledge on Sunday at the park.)

Among the ILC’s goals is to forge partnerships to increase the impact of its events and initiatives, and not just with its participants. “We got 100 organizations to promote an event, to bring people, and work to make sure it’s successful,” Evenhaim said, describing how the ILC promoted the concert last November. “That’s what’s happening with the festival, too.”

The results will likely be felt in e-mail inboxes across Los Angeles because according to the Celebrate Israel Festival’s organizers, 72 other groups have agreed to help the ILC promote the event. Many plan to send out information to everyone on their mailing lists about how to buy tickets in advance.

“Although the ILC is the leader in this festival,” Evenhaim said, “we see it as a community event. This is not just an ILC event.”

But even with the participation of multiple partners, the ILC has been in the driver’s seat from day one, and watching Adee Drory, the festival’s director, walk her production team through the park in early February, it appeared that the sponsors — who had already provided her with her own office, ILC-branded business cards and an assistant — had told her to spare no expense.

On a day when a crew shooting the TV show “Modern Family” had turned one corner of the park into a polling place with little more than a “VOTE HERE” sidewalk sign and a few small American flags, Drory was walking across acres of baseball fields and other green spaces, plotting out where the three stages, dozens of exhibitor booths, a few large tents and the fences, food stands and other necessities would go.

“We’ll need another dressing room,” Drory said, gesturing to a space just behind one of the baseball field’s chain-link backstops. “I have the Power Rangers coming.”

Despite all the talk of newness — “New Place, New Look, New Faces,” reads the copy on the ads that have been appearing in this newspaper and the local Hebrew-language publications for months — this year’s festival is, in some ways, a return to the familiar ways in which Los Angeles has celebrated Israeli Independence day.

The day will start with a “Salute to Israel Walk” along the sidewalks of Pico Boulevard, presented by the ILC and the Israel advocacy group StandWithUs, an activity inspired in part by the annual walk that took place in Los Angeles in the 1970s and ’80s. And once the gates of the park open at 10 a.m., many of the attractions will seem familiar to anyone who made the trip to Woodley Park in recent years.

“It looks like, more or less, they are doing what we did,” said Yoram Gutman, the executive director of the now officially dormant Israel Independence Day Festival. Gutman pointed out that, like the Celebrate Israel Festival, the festival he led for almost two decades also had a main stage, a teen stage, a children’s stage and a space with cafe-style seating.

As in previous years, many local Jewish organizations and Israel-related groups will, thanks to a grant from The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, exhibit their work at booths.

“The ILC’s renewed festival in Rancho Park has the potential to be a major community unifier, and we’re very excited about it,” Andrew Cushnir, executive vice president of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, said.

Nevertheless, there are some aspects of this year’s festival that haven’t been tried before. The Jewish National Fund (JNF) is bringing an exhibit called “Positively Israel,” designed to highlight Israeli contributions to technology and science. The Consulate General of Israel in Los Angeles is co-presenting a display of Israel-themed art made by students at local Jewish day schools. Four commissioned works by professional artists will be on display, as well.

Hidabroot, a Jewish outreach organization that originated in Israel and runs frequent retreats and publishes a monthly magazine here in Los Angeles, will be manning a “spiritual pavilion” featuring lectures from rabbis and other events designed to appeal to Orthodox attendees.

“I hope that all the datiim [religious Jews], when they see this area that is tzanua [modest], with all the organization, with rabbis and speakers, they will come,” said Erez Maymon, Hidabroot’s chief in Los Angeles. “This is my hope.”

Some ideas never quite materialized, though. MATI, an Israeli cultural center in West Hills, initially hoped to help organize a bike ride to the festival, starting in Encino and ending at the park in Cheviot Hills. According to MATI’s CEO, Orna Eilon, the Los Angeles Police Department rejected the proposal.

And some elements have been incorporated whole from the earlier event. The parachutists who will sail into Cheviot Hills park during the formal ceremony on the main stage on Sunday with the flags of the United States and Israel dangling from their legs will be members of the Golden Stars Skydiving Team of the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department, the very same crew that jumped each year into the Woodley Park celebration.

Before Gutman officially decided to cancel his festival this year —which he had also planned to take place on April 29 — there was some confusion among vendors and performers about whether there would be two competing Israel festivals scheduled in Los Angeles on the same day.

Drory, the director of the new festival, was herself involved in the old festival. She handled public relations and worked to bring dignitaries to the Woodley Park festival for four or five years, and she acknowledged the overlap in personnel between the old festival and the new one.

“That was the festival of the community,” Drory said. “It was what brought the community together for many years.”

At the height of its popularity, Gutman said, his festival attracted 40,000 people to celebrate Israel’s 50th birthday in Pan Pacific Park in 1998. Back then, before the Grove shopping mall was built, before the attacks of Sept. 11 made security more of an issue everywhere, the festival didn’t charge any admission fees.

The festival moved to Woodley Park in 2001, and in 2010, with the economic downturn hitting Los Angeles hard, the city tightened its policy for special events. Whereas the City Council used to be able to waive fees for certain events, the new economic reality made that no longer the case. Officers from the LAPD were on patrol in Woodley Park that year, and it cost the festival more than $40,000.

Gutman said his organization’s finances never recovered, which appears to be confirmed by the IRS filings for the year ending on June 30, 2010, the most recent year that could be obtained. In 2008, the year when Israel celebrated the 60th anniversary of its founding, Gutman’s organization spent $350,000 on the festival.

The new Celebrate Israel Festival, according to Saidoff, has spent more than twice that sum already and appears to have no trouble when it comes to money.

According to Saidoff, the cost of the JNF pavilion alone was $50,000, and it cost “tens of thousands of dollars” to install the artworks that will be displayed.

The smaller touches would seem to reflect the event’s higher cost. Where there used to be lines of people waiting to pay volunteers in cash at the festival entrance at Woodley Park, in Cheviot Hills there will also be people holding hand-scanners, ready to admit anyone who bought tickets online. Where there were once banners advertising festival sponsors, this year there may be flat screens.

For Saidoff and the ILC, who are hoping to make this event an annual one, the last challenge is a basic one — getting people to show up.

“We’re not asking a lot,” he said. “We’re asking people to come and have a good time. Failure is not an option. It’s not an option for Israel; it’s not an option for us.”

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