Yehudit Feinstein, the New York regional director of the Israeli American Council (IAC), arrived at Cheviot Hills Recreation Center in Rancho Park May 18 ready to check out the Celebrate Israel festival honoring Israel’s 66th Independence Day, in hopes of creating a similar one back East.
“I am shocked and amazed by the sense of community. So many different groups and organizations, flavors and ideas have come together in one place,” the 39-year-old said. “It’s almost like a big city celebration in Israel.”
The local festival organizers at the IAC, based in Woodland Hills, couldn’t have hoped for a better day. The temperature was comfortable — the high was 75 degrees — and a fleet of buses easily shuttled in the 15,000 who came to revel in a day of fun.
Attendance reported by the IAC was significantly up over last year’s 10,000 participants.
“Of the three years that we have put on this event, this is, by far, the most successful one,” said Adee Drory, the festival’s director and producer. “When I saw the huge sea of people that came together for one common reason, which was Israel, it made me feel that we did something right. We brought and united the community across the board together. ... That’s part of the mission of the IAC. Every year, we want to reach out to more and more people; that is our ultimate goal. Next year, we hope for it to be even bigger and better.”
Music was coming from all corners of the festival while savory smells wafted through the air. This was the first time in the three-year history of the festival in its current location that all the food was glatt kosher.
“It made a big difference,” said Tiffany Nouri, 23, of Los Angeles. “I keep kosher, and it really helps me a lot that there is so much variety of what I can eat.”
Before stopping for their lunch break at Orange Delight, Brian Ash, 39, and his son Wolfie, 4, from West Los Angles, rode on a camel for the first time and played in a sandbox filled with imitation Dead Sea salt.
“My son’s skin is looking a lot younger. Not a day over 3!” Ash joked. “It’s nice to see everyone celebrating Israel. It’s our homeland; it’s a Jewish state. We love Israel. Even though it was hard to get out of the house this morning, it’s a much shorter journey to come here than going to Israel.”
Tour of Israel was the festival’s theme and there were many areas reminiscent of the Jewish state — a Bedouin tent at the Negev and Arava pavilion, a mini beach for Tel Aviv. One popular stop was the 32-foot-long re-creation of the Western Wall, where many wrote personal prayers, blessings and words of thanksgiving on scraps of paper that they then placed in the wall.
Judy Zissler, 63, a volunteer from Victorville, commented, “At the end of the festival, all of the pieces of paper will be collected and taken to the Kotel in Jerusalem, where they would be prayed over by different Orthodox Jewish men and women.”
Tracy Shafshak, 35, drove from Las Vegas with 20 relatives to attend Celebrate Israel.
“I told my husband that we need to come every year. This is a good one,” she said. “It’s nice to be around a lot of people that have the same beliefs, family memories and history. We ate watermelon, did the obstacle course, bounce house and can’t wait to see Rinat Gabay.” The famous children’s entertainer performed on the kids’ stage to a large, enthusiastic audience.
There was plenty more to enjoy, too, from ongoing live performances on two stages — The Idan Raichel Project was the headliner — to carnival rides to Israeli dancing. There also was shopping at a pavilion showcasing local Jewish and Israeli artists and a host of other vendors overall representing everything from Jewish camps to attorneys.
At the high-tech pavilion, Ziv Lautman, 29, was among the Israelis who showed off their winning inventions from Israel’s BizTEC startup competition. Lautman of Tel Aviv developed BreezoMeter, an app that pulls information from pollution-monitoring stations and gives personalized recommendations as to how to minimize the exposure to pollutants wherever you are. The app, currently available in Israel, will be making its California debut this summer.
“My partner was looking to buy a house in Israel, and his wife has severe asthma, so we wanted to create a way to find the healthiest place to live. And even as environmental engineers, we couldn’t understand any of the information that was available,” Lautman said.
While the celebration didn’t take place in Israel, many participants said it was the next best thing.
“I think that it’s brilliant to get a chance to showcase in America and also with people that love Israel,” Feinstein said. “It’s so powerful to be here. There are so many people. There’s a sense of peoplehood.”