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Celebrating Israel — at a Drive-In

The Israeli-American Council shows the community the path forward.
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April 20, 2021
After more than a year of separation, people were eager to come together at the IAC’s Celebrate Israel drive-in festival. Courtesy of the Israeli-American Council.

For nearly a decade, the Los Angeles chapter of the Israeli-American Council held its annual Yom HaAtzmaut festival, Celebrate Israel, every year at Rancho Park in West Los Angeles.

The all-day affair typically drew more than 10,000 attendees, Jewish, pro-Israel community members of all ages and backgrounds who would show their love for the Jewish State by marching from the park to the Museum of Tolerance; enjoying the festival’s carnival with their little ones; sipping beer and cocktails at an outdoor young professionals bar; browsing booths staffed by representatives of Jewish organizations and nonprofits that gave away free swag (if only you would take a moment to hear about the vital work their group does); and by dancing the night away at a live concert featuring popular bands from Israel.

In 2020, because of COVID-19, there was no Celebrate Israel festival. I occasionally jog around Rancho Park, and early on in the pandemic, I noticed a rotting Celebrate Israel parking sign leaning against the Rancho Park fence. In the pandemic times, the neglected sign appeared to be an apt metaphor of the Jewish life that had once flourished at the park every Yom HaAtzmaut but had since faded away.

This year, as COVID-19 cases have decreased and vaccination rates have increased, life in Los Angeles has slowly begun returning to normal, and the IAC opted to organize Celebrate Israel once again, albeit tweaked and COVID-friendly.

“We had to find a solution,” Shoham Nicolet, co-founder and CEO of the IAC, said. “How do you make it safe to connect the community? This is the compromise.” The IAC opted for a drive-in event on April 18, with an evening concert as the main feature. More than 400 vehicles parked in two adjacent outdoor parking lots in Woodland Hills and watched streamed performances by Israeli bands, including the Idan Raichel Project, Rami Kleinstein and T-Slam. Members of Tzofim — Israeli scouts — went car to car serving concessions.

The IAC held similar events nationwide, in cities including Atlanta, Boston, Denver and Las Vegas. “It was critical for us to find an innovative way to bring Israel to the heart of our community in a safe way,” IAC Chairman Naty Saidoff said. “Watching the sense of togetherness, especially with many young kids, celebrating the Jewish state as a united community, is heartwarming and inspiring.”

“It was critical for us to find an innovative way to bring Israel to the heart of our community in a safe way.”

And I joined the festivities firsthand. Around 6:30 p.m., I drove into the parking lot on Canoga Avenue and entered the festival grounds. A staff member approached my car, greeting me in Hebrew, and when I replied in poor Hebrew, “Ani loh medaber ivrit,” she switched to English, explaining she needed to take my temperature.

Cleared for takeoff, I parked, put on my mask and explored. A couple of parking spaces from my Honda Civic, 12-year-old twin sisters Emma and Ella Yeshua cuddled together in the trunk of their father’s Porsche, waiting for the excitement to start. “I came to celebrate Israel’s birthday and to have fun,” Emma, a student at Hale Charter Academy in Woodland Hills, told me.

Attendees of the IAC’s Celebrate Israel drive-in take in the entertainment from the hood of their car. Courtesy of the Israeli-American Council.

The evening began with remarks from city leaders, including Los Angeles City Councilmember Bob Blumenfield, who shared how he was a proud Zionist long before he was ever an elected official. Soon after, Israeli actress Noa Tishby, a recognizable face in the Los Angeles Jewish community, appeared on the large inflatable screen facing the parking lot, as she was hosting the event from a remote location. A timeline of major historical events in Israel’s history followed, as did remarks from Israeli President Reuven Rivlin.

There was a stage in one of the two parking lots, and despite instructions from organizers to remain in your vehicles or stay in your designated area, people flocked to the stage as if they had never heard of COVID-19. Apparently, after more than a year of separation, people were eager to come together, see old friends and celebrate their love for Israel with fellow members of the community.

I talked to another fellow guest, Elie Mafouda, who turned out with his wife, Minda. Originally from Israel, Mafouda was wounded while fighting with the Golani infantry brigade in the Yom Kippur War. Although he has been living in the United States for close to 35 years, Israel remains close to his heart.

“Today is a special day of Yom HaAtzmaut, Independence Day, and we are here in America, in Los Angeles, and I am happy to celebrate that with all my buddies, all my Jewish, Israeli friends, and it’s very good to have a day like this, not just to skip it,” he told me.

Minda echoed his enthusiasm. “This seems like a wonderful event and something to do that is COVID-friendly, and yet we get to go out after so many months,” Minda, a teacher at the Spivak Educational Center, an Orthodox day school, said.

Around 8:30 p.m., just as Israeli vocalist Sarit Hadad’s performance began playing onscreen, I departed. As I pulled out of the lot and onto Canoga, I could not shake the hopeful feeling that for all the discussion about how the pandemic has accelerated the transition to virtual forms of activity, life in the Los Angeles Jewish community will go on. We will congregate like we did once before, and after a year of lockdown, we will shake ourselves free and arise from the dust collecting on our unused wardrobes.

Leave it to the Israelis, known for boldness in action, talent for innovation and improbable achievement against all odds, to show the community the path forward.

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