April 25, 2012
Guess who’s bringing the Israel Festival back?
L.A.’s Israeli leaders take Yom HaAtzmaut celebration to Rancho Park
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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.”