September 16, 2019

Moving and Shaking: Celebrate Israel Festival

The Israeli American Council’s (IAC) Celebrate Israel festival drew more than 15,000 attendees of all ages and backgrounds to Cheviot Hills Recreation Center on May 15, making it the largest Jewish festival in North America, according to organizers.

“If we can connect tens of thousands of Jewish Americans, Israeli Americans, it’s the best return on investment you can get,” Erez Goldman, the regional director of the IAC, told the Journal the day after the festival.

The climax of the gathering occurred as Iranian-Israeli singer Rita, the event’s headlining performer, appeared barefoot on the festival’s main stage, accompanied by a quintet of musicians. Singing in English, Hebrew and Farsi, she danced around the stage as she performed, leaving the enthusiastic crowd wanting more. “Once more!” they chanted in Hebrew, waving tiny Israeli and American flags.

The event began hours earlier at 11 a.m. with a “Salute to Israel” march organized by pro-Israel organization StandWithUs that drew 600 participants, according to a StandWithUs spokesperson. The participants marched from the park, which is located at Pico Boulevard and Motor Avenue, to the nearby Simon Wiesenthal Center, where they sang “Hatikvah” before returning. 

Early afternoon activities at the park were numerous. There were carnival rides, entertainment for kids, plenty of kosher culinary cuisine, local vendors and booths featuring local nonprofits and more. 

A Middle Eastern pavilion, organized by Jews Indigenous to the Middle East and North Africa, provided attendees with the opportunity to make their own tea bags and compete in a backgammon tournament. 

“I love this game,” Sephardic Temple Tifereth Israel President Alex Rachmanony said, seated before a backgammon board. “I think we [Middle Eastern people] came out of the womb playing shesh besh,” he added, using another name for the game — a mix of Hebrew and Turkish. 

Nearby, at the Israeli-American Pavilion, Israeli-manufactured cars — the Sussita and the Sabra — were on display, much to the delight of Rabbi Yonah Bookstein of Pico Shul. 

“It’s original,” he said during an interview at the 21-and-older bar called #MeetMeAtTheBar, which served up the Middle Eastern licorice-flavored liquor arak, beer and other drinks to young professionals. 

A ceremony, beginning at 3:15 p.m., featured remarks by elected officials, community leaders and others. “Celebrating Israel shouldn’t just be today,” Consul General of Israel in Los Angeles David Siegel said, addressing the crowd. “It should be every day of the week.” 

Those joining Siegel onstage for the ceremony included IAC co-founder and national Chairman Adam Milstein; Miri Shepher, Los Angeles Council chairwoman of the IAC; her husband, Isaac; and Naty and Debbie Saidoff, who underwrote a large portion of the $700,000-plus festival. Politicians in attendance included L.A. City Councilman Paul Koretz; L.A. City Controller Ron Galperin; L.A. City Attorney Mike Feuer; Chairman of the Los Angeles Democratic Party Eric Bauman; and state Assemblymembers Travis Allen and Richard Bloom, who are backers of legislation that combats the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel. 

A flyover by the formation flying team Tiger Squadron also took place during the late-afternoon ceremony. 

“You don’t see that everyday,” said Yiddish performer Mike Burstyn, who emceed the ceremony.

Concerts by Lokchim et Hazman (“Taking Your Time”), DJ Aviel and Rita followed the ceremony. Attendees flocked to the pit area in front of the stage and waved flags as they danced to the music of the performers. 

IAC regional council member Tamir Cohen told the Journal he would like to see more involvement by the American-Jewish community at future festivals.

“We hope to see more American-Jewish [community members] coming and participating and helping and getting involved and realizing if their kids are not going to come here, they’re going to stay away from Judaism and Israel,” Cohen said.

As the festival concluded, Naty Saidoff, hanging around the entrance, said he hoped the event not only helped bring together supporters of Israel but that it would help push back against the BDS movement. 

“When we see all these people and the politicians see the activism, we can recognize it [as] doing God’s work,” he said. “That’s one of the main reasons that we are doing this.”

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