May 21, 2019

Celebrate Israel Fest brings Jewish homeland to its people

Nachum Peterseil misses celebrating Yom HaAtzmaut in Israel, where he grew up and annually got caught up in the spirit of the country’s Independence Day. 

The lead singer of the Los Angeles band Automatic Toys hopes to catch some of that excitement this weekend, when he and his band perform at Celebrate Israel, the annual Yom HaAtzmaut festival in West Los Angeles. The May 18 festival is expected to draw thousands of people to Cheviot Hills Recreation Center (Rancho Park) in honor of Israel’s 66th birthday earlier this month.

Peterseil is not alone in pining for such celebrations, which is one reason the Israeli American Council (IAC) has been presenting the festival since 2012. 

“If we cannot bring people to Israel, we bring Israel to where we live,” festival chair Naty Saidoff told the Journal by phone. 

The festival is the flagship event of the IAC, an umbrella organization for Israelis living in the United States that provides education resources, volunteer opportunities and more. The Los Angeles-based organization has offices across the country. 

The IAC spent more than $700,000, according to IAC Chairman Shawn Evenhaim, to make this event something that even Israelis back home will appreciate. 

“This is a connection that will last a lifetime,” he said. “For me, walking around the park and seeing a mass of people celebrate Israel — all this will be reported later in Israel, and the people of Israel will know that their brothers and sisters abroad support them and celebrate their independence. It means a lot to them. I know when I grew up in Israel, it meant a lot to me.”

Nearly 150 organizations, including the Jewish Journal, StandWithUs and Westfield Group, are participating in the event. It will take place 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. under the leadership of festival director Adee Drory.

Israeli music ensemble The Idan Raichel Project is headlining the event at 5 p.m., but there will be much more than music. Thirty stations set up across the park are intended to create the feeling of being in Israel, consistent with this year’s theme, Tour of Israel.

The Jerusalem pavilion will house a 32-foot-long version of the Western Wall. Attendees will be able to write notes and leave them inside the wall. These notes will make their way to Jerusalem, festival organizers said. 

Nearby, the Negev and Arava pavilion will house a Bedouin tent, camel rides, drum circles and desert art. Kids can build their own kibbutz at the Kinneret (Sea of Galilee) pavilion or play in the sand at a mini beach at the Tel Aviv pavilion. For the first time, the event will offer only glatt kosher food. Observant attendees of past festivals complained about the lack of kosher options, according to Evenhaim.

Organizers are hoping this is the biggest Celebrate Israel yet. In 2012, its inaugural year, the festival drew 15,000 attendees, while last year saw a drop-off in attendance to 10,000. Dikla Kadosh, the IAC director of community events and volunteering, said during a phone interview that changes made in response to feedback will push the number of attendees back up. 

One change festival-goers will notice immediately is lower ticket prices. Advance-purchase tickets, available online at, cost $5. The price at the door is $10. Children under 3 are free. Tickets were about double that price last year, Evenhaim said.

Before the gates open at 11 a.m., a commemorative walk, organized by StandWithUs, will kick off the day’s activities. After assembling at 9:30 a.m., participants will march at 10 a.m. from Pico Boulevard and Motor Avenue, an intersection adjacent to the park, to the intersection of Roxbury Drive and Pico Boulevard and then back again. Kadosh said the walk is an important component of the festival. 

“That’s really to show the rest of the city that we stand with Israel,” she said. 

Throughout the festival itself, there will be performances by a host of talent from local schools as well as clergy. These include the Harkham Hillel Hebrew Academy Choir; the Milken Community Schools Choir; Israeli folk- dancing teacher David Dassa; Cantors Marcus Feldman (Sinai Temple), Nathan Lam (Stephen S. Wise Temple) and Nathaniel Barham (Young Israel of North Beverly Hills); and the Milken Community Schools Dance Team. 

From 2:50 to 3:05 p.m., make sure to look skyward for the Tiger Squadron Air Show. The Jewish Community Children’s Choir, under the direction of Michelle Green Willner, accompanied by the Sinai Akiba Academy Orchestra, under the direction of David Brown, will sing the U.S. national anthem and “Hatikva.” 

Yiddish theater actor Mike Burstyn will be master of ceremonies, serving as the audience’s guide through a slew of appearances by elected officials, including Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, and through performances by the bands. 

Although his band writes American music exclusively, Peterseil and Automatic Toys plan to play a special set for the festival, made up exclusively of Israeli covers — from Israeli rock artists spanning from the 1960s to the present.

Kids’ activities will be taking place on a separate stage. A marionette show, a reptile show and performer Rinat Gabay are a few of the highlights. As with previous years, an amusement park, complete with a Ferris wheel and more, will entertain young children. Teens can take part in rock climbing, bungee jumping and other activities.

Evenhaim said one highlight will be the festival’s high-tech pavilion, where Israeli university students will deliver TED-style talks every 30 minutes. 

In the days leading up to the festival, organizers and supporters emphasized how important it was to them that this year’s festival be a success and bring in a large turnout.

“We want the experience to be memorable and special,” said Saidoff, who personally donated more than $300,000 toward the cost of the festival, making him and his wife, Debbie, the single-largest contributors to Celebrate Israel. 

In order to deal with the expected high volume of automobile and pedestrian traffic in the area, there are five nearby parking lots available that organizers said are walking distance from the festival, which is located across the street from Fox Studios and adjacent to Century City. Shuttles will transport festival-goers to and from the grounds all day long, as well. 

Kadosh said that because Yom HaAtzmaut and supporting Israel are important causes for American Jews and Israeli-Americans, the festival should be a time of unity.

“It should be the one time in the year when our community comes together. … One thing we can all agree on and the one thing we can celebrate at the same time, all together.”