December 15, 2018

L.A. set to celebrate Israel, Jewish community

This year’s Celebrate Israel Independence Day festival will feature plenty of stars when it takes place on April 21, but only one has plans to actually spend time in outer space.

It’s not quite the Apollo 11 spacecraft — which took Neil Armstrong to his lunar landing — but the Space IL spaceship could make Israel only the third nation in the world to land on the moon when it launches in 2015.

The celebrity spacecraft, along with the Israeli rock band Mashina and local ’80s cover band the Spazmatics, will highlight Los Angeles’ best impression of Tel Aviv on Yom HaAtzmaut at the second annual event held by the Israeli American Council (IAC), formerly known as the Israeli Leadership Council (ILC). It will take place from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. at the Cheviot Hills Recreation Center (Rancho Park).

[Click here for a map of the festival]

Two of the festival’s main organizers — businessmen and philanthropists Naty Saidoff and Shawn Evenhaim — predict that this year’s installment, which honors the Jewish state’s 65th birthday, will attract between 15,000 and 20,000 people. 

“We need to unite all the Jews that live in this city,” Evenhaim said. “This is one day that helps to do it.”

The event is open to the public. Tickets can be purchased at the door or online at

This year, there will be 21 artists from Tel Aviv’s artist colony, a beer garden, Israeli folk dancing, a kids’ stage and other children’s activities, including a puppy petting zoo, a drum circle, backgammon games, face painters and stilt walkers. Throw in an Israeli history exhibit at the “Time Travel Tunnel” and a massive community oil painting of the Tel Aviv coastline created by oil and acrylic paint artist Tomer Peretz and there may really be something for everyone. L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa is expected to attend as well.

According to Adee Drory, the festival’s director, there will be a major effort this year to provide a large variety of food and, just as important, to minimize waiting time in lines. There will be 21 vendors and 32 points of sale. People in a Mediterranean mood can enjoy shawarma, falafel or a “hummus bar.” Those in a more American mood can munch on sweet corn, hot dogs and funnel cake. 

The goal, Saidoff said, is that the aroma from the foods, the sounds from the music and the general feel of the event will resemble a day outdoors in Tel Aviv.

“It’s for the Israelis who want to feel Tel Aviv for one day and for the Americans who haven’t been to Tel Aviv,” Saidoff said.

Major festival sponsors include Debbie and Naty Saidoff, who are underwriting the event, along with Westfield shopping centers, Dorit and Shawn Evenhaim and the government of Israel, which this year will give $54,000, up from $10,000 to $15,000 last year, according to David Siegel, consul general of Israel in Los Angeles. The Jewish Journal is media sponsor for the event.

Naty Saidoff said the Israeli government’s involvement in the event symbolizes an important shift in Israel in terms of how yordim — Israelis who live in the Diaspora — are viewed. 

“There’s a changing reality with [the] passage of time,” Saidoff said. “Israelis that live in the Diaspora are not considered people who necessarily betrayed the ideals of Zionism.”

Siegel said, “It’s very important for us to cultivate our ties with the Jewish community here and to make sure that they feel close to Israel.”

One late entry into the list of the sponsors was The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles. It wasn’t until late last week that Federation decided to contribute $10,000 to the festival — less than the $50,000 it provided last year.

Andrew Cushnir, Federation’s chief programming officer, explained that while Federation prefers to donate to groups instead of “one-time” events, in 2012 it wanted to help re-establish the festival, and so decided to commit “seed funding.”

“Last year, because it was the first time they were bringing it to Rancho Park, we made a decision to give them support beyond our usual approach,” Cushnir said. “This year, we are happy to be a supporter at our current level.”

Saidoff, who hopes Federation chooses to play a major role in future Celebrate Israel festivals, said that its initial decision to not renew at last year’s level was disappointing.

“The absence of the Jewish Federation was confounding,” Saidoff said. “[But they] decided to take a booth and donate $10,000, which is a step in the right direction.”

Preceding the festival at 9 a.m. is the “Salute for Israel Walk,” which will begin at Motor Avenue by the park, head east through the center of Pico-Robertson and return to Rancho Park. Joining the walk will be cars from “Fueled by the Fallen,” a group that honors military and public safety personnel who were killed. Its “9/11 Angel Cruiser Series” cars, which display the names of everyone killed in the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, will be on display at the festival. 

The walk will be organized by the IAC and StandWithUs, an event sponsor and  pro-Israel nonprofit. 

In 2011, what was known as the Israeli Festival sputtered because of money problems and a dearth of community support. So last year, Saidoff pushed hard to create this event, and he made sure to make the case to the community — Jewish and non-Jewish — about why it mattered. He was able to secure the Cheviot Hills location after the city’s Westside Neighborhood Council voted 11-1 to allow the festival.

“Israel is a light to the nations,” Saidoff said. “This nation is a light to the neighborhood and to the city. It sounds lofty, but that’s my sense of purpose.”

Founded as ILC in 2007, IAC is a nonprofit group with an annual budget of approximately $3 million. Its mission is to support Israel by bolstering Jewish identity among young Israeli-Americans and establishing links between Israeli-born Americans and Jews born in America. 

For Saidoff, a director at IAC, the way that Celebrate Israel furthers that mission can be described in one word — unity.

“Unity is very important in the Jewish community,” Saidoff said. “They say the Second Temple fell because people were squabbling as the enemy was at the door.” 

Evenhaim, IAC’s chairman, sees in this event not only a chance for unity and connection to Judaism and Israel, but also a source of comfort for Jews in Israel.

“When you live in Israel and you see that people abroad celebrate the independence of the State of Israel, it makes you feel comfortable that you are not alone. We owe it to our brothers and sisters in Israel.”