Thousands of people typically gather for music, food and more at the Celebrate Israel festival. Photo by Linda Kasian Photography

Festival provides a taste of Israel in Rancho Park


Play backgammon with a stranger. Rock out to pulsating Israeli dance music. Meet the faces behind your favorite Jewish communal organization.

The annual Celebrate Israel festival takes place on May 7, and as it does every year, the gathering is expected to draw upward of 15,000 people to experience live music, kosher food, kids’ activities, a market built to resemble Mahane Yehuda in Jerusalem and some pro-Israel solidarity, to boot. This year, the event also celebrates 50 years since the 1967 reunification of Jerusalem.

Naty Saidoff, a board member of the Israeli American Council (IAC), which organizes the event, remembers living in Israel during the momentous historical event half a century ago.

“I was 13 years of age when it happened,” he said. “It was a very scary time and, all of a sudden, instead of being thrown in the sea as Arabs promised us, we pushed them back and we got the glory of reunified Jerusalem, with the old city of Jerusalem.”

Saidoff and his wife, Debbie, are the main underwriters of the event, and he said many of the people at this year’s festival will be a mix of those who experienced the events of 1967 and many who have never been to Israel. That’s the point: The annual festival transforms Cheviot Hills Recreation Center in Rancho Park into a miniature Israel.

“What we do is for the people who cannot go to Israel and the people who went to Israel and want that flavor again, we bring it to you. This is the closest experience you can get to being in Israel,” Saidoff said. “This is Israel, user-friendly.”

The annual festival takes place every year around the time of Israel’s Independence Day, Yom HaAtzmaut, which this year was May 2. It is the largest program of the IAC, an umbrella organization for Israeli Americans that, with help from philanthropists such as Sheldon Adelson, has expanded to cities nationwide since its launch in 2007. Other festivals this year are taking place in New York, Las Vegas and Chicago. The L.A. event (israeliamerican.org/celebrate-israel-festival-la) is the largest.

This year marks the sixth year since the festival was revamped and moved to the Westside of Los Angeles from the San Fernando Valley.

Israeli musician Dudu Aharon is slated to headline the festival’s main stage, with other highlights including a flyover air show by the Tiger Squadron; a bar for 20-somethings; photographs by Tel Aviv-based photographer Noam Chen; and a challah bake where people can learn how to braid the bread.

For the youngsters, a kids’ stage features children’s acts Naama Super Al and Sportuly, and a Jerusalem biblical zoo offers camel rides, pony rides and a giant petting zoo.

For the artistically inclined, the IAC has organized a Jerusalem Moment Instagram competition, seeking submissions of photos that “explore the architecture of Jerusalem, faith, food and the hipster side of Jerusalem.” According to Saidoff, Jerusalem is becoming a destination for millennials seeking great restaurants, culture and art, and organizers want photographs reflecting that. The top 100 photos will be exhibited at the festival.

American Friends of Magen David Adom, which raises funds for Israel’s most active emergency-response organization, will conduct a blood drive. Gift of Life pavilion, in memory of the recently deceased community member Adam Krief, will swab cheeks to help with bone marrow matches.

The glatt-kosher offerings include barbecue, hummus, salads, falafel, baked goods and watermelon.

Channel your inner wandering Jew and explore the grounds of the park. Stumble into the JIMENA (Jews Indigenous to the Middle East and North Africa) pavilion and play backgammon or create a cookbook.

Installations include a 32-foot-long Western Wall replica, where attendees place notes, much as they do when visiting the Kotel; a re-creation of the famous “Ahava” (Hebrew for “love”) statue from the Israel Museum in Jerusalem; and a 28-foot-tall Tower of David, featuring photography by Chen.

The festival begins at 11 a.m. For those who want to celebrate Israel earlier, a “Salute to Israel Walk in Blue and White,” a 1-mile loop sponsored by the pro-Israel organization StandWithUs, starts at 10. Participants will walk from the park to Pico Boulevard and Roxbury Drive, outside the Simon Wiesenthal Center Museum of Tolerance, then return.

“StandWithUs is going to be there with their high spirits, their energy,” Saidoff said.

Saidoff said he believes an event like this is an opportunity for the non-Israeli Jewish community, including Persians, Russians and observant Jews — especially their children — to party Israeli-style in a family-friendly environment.

Many Jewish organizations, including the Jewish Journal and The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, set up booths at the festival.

The festival ends at 6 p.m. Advanced general admission tickets cost $15; the walk-up cost is $20. There is no charge for children up to age 3. Parking, at $10, is available at Fox Studios Galaxy East Parking Garage, Century Park West Garage and Constellation Park Garage, and the price includes shuttles to and from the park.

The Celebrate Israel festival takes place on May 7. For more information, visit this story at jewishjournal.com.

+