Photographs of Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa play on a large screen. In one photograph, he’s with Israeli President Shimon Peres. In others, he is visiting the Western Wall, walking at a kibbutz and greeting Israeli soldiers.
Meanwhile, Villaraigosa, in the flesh, is watching the slideshow, smiling.
When the presentation comes to an end, music and applause fill the room and Villaraigosa makes his way to the stage, where Consul General of Israel in Los Angeles David Siegel hands the mayor an award, a framed prayer from the book of Genesis.
Finally, Villaraigosa addresses the crowd, a mix of 900 Angelenos representing the local Jewish and Israeli communities: “Chazak, chazak v’nitchazek!” (“Be strong, be strong and may we strengthen one another!”)
“For me, it’s unthinkable to imagine what the city would be like without the Jewish community,” he said before expressing his admiration for Israel’s “determination to succeed even in the face of enormous odds.”
These words came as part of an April 15 Yom HaAtzmaut party organized by the Consulate General of Israel in Los Angeles and held at Sinai Temple. The event served a twofold purpose: Celebrate the modern state of Israel’s 65th Independence Day — which began at sundown on April 15 — and pay tribute to Villaraigosa, the Boyle Heights native now completing his final term as mayor, who has spent his eight years in office forging tight, consistent ties to L.A. Jews and Israel.
“This will be not be the last time I celebrate Israeli Independence Day with you, but it will be the last time I celebrate with you as mayor,” he said.
Villaraigosa highlighted work he has done with Jews and Israel as mayor: visiting the Jewish state to meet with Israeli politicians; sending L.A. Police Department officers to Israel to train with the counter-terrorism experts; raising the Israeli flag outside the former headquarters of the Israeli consulate’s office on Wilshire Boulevard; participating in The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles’ centennial and more.
The Consulate General, which aims to strengthen the bonds between the Southwest region and Israel, holds Yom HaAtzmaut celebrations in Los Angeles annually. At this year’s event, Siegel, introduced the mayor while also calling attention to “the modern miracle of Israel’s 65th birthday — or 3,065th birthday.”
Siegel praised Israel’s economic, scientific and cultural contributions to the world — “not too bad for a country of a little over 8 million people, less [than] the size of New Jersey, in the heart of the Middle East,” he said.
“But exports are only part of the story,” Siegel added. He highlighted the religious pluralism that exists in Israel, the country’s spiritual centers that train leaders around the world, its democratic political system and its embrace of immigrants from across the globe.
After the slideshow and speeches by Siegel and Villaraigosa, the crowd — including L.A. County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky; City Controller and mayoral candidate Wendy Greuel; City Councilmen Dennis Zine and Bill Rosendahl; Holocaust survivor and philanthropist Max Webb; Catherine Schneider, senior vice president of community engagement at Federation and others — continued on with the party. It began at 6:30 p.m. and ended around 9 p.m.
“Israel means a lot to me … because I am a Holocaust survivor,” said Webb, a 96-year-old who has supported the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust, American Friends of Tel Aviv University and the Women’s International Zionist Organization, among others.
Throughout the evening, diverse foods and wines from Israel were served. Live entertainment featured emcee Mike Burstyn and singer-guitarist Peter Himmelman. Meshi Kleinstein and Cantor Rachel Goldman Neubauer performed “Hatikvah” and “The Star-Spangled Banner,” respectively.
Husband-and-wife philanthropists Fela and David Shapell as well as Herta and Paul Amir, El Al Airlines and the Israel Wine Producers Association sponsored the occasion.