The eighth annual Israel Independence Day Festival will take place on Sunday, May 15th, at Rancho Park in Cheviot Hills. This year’s festival includes a Torah Pavilion, a siyum on Seder Moed, and other events and activities of special interest to the Orthodox community.
The event is organized by the Israeli American Council (IAC), with participation of many Jewish organizations throughout the Greater Los Angeles. It attracts thousands of people – Jews of all stripes, as well as non-Jewish supporters of the State of Israel. The organizers are making a special effort to include the Orthodox community and to ensure that all the attendees feel comfortable at the event.
A few years ago, Mr. Nati Saidoff, a board member of IAC, approached Rabbi Boruch Sufrin, head of Harkham Hillel Hebrew Academy and asked what could be done to attract the Orthodox segment of the Los Angeles Jewish community. Rabbi Sufrin saw two challenges to Orthodox involvement: kashrus and timing of the event. Since IAC usually holds the event on a Sunday nearest to Yom Haaztmaut, Israeli Independence Day, it often falls during sefiras haomer, when we are prohibited to listen to live music and attend large celebrations. Rabbi Sufrin told Mr. Saidoff that if the IAC was willing to address these areas then they would garner support of the Orthodox community. Mr. Saidoff and the IAC agreed to these requirements.
“It took the better part of six months to convince the kosher vendors and caterers to provide enough food for 15, 000 people,” says Rabbi Sufrin. But the efforts paid off, and for past few years the food at the festival has been strictly kosher.
The timing issue was also resolved in previous years by holding the festival on or after Lag Baomer. But this year, because it is a leap year, Lag Baomer falls very late in the year. Rancho Park, the location of the festival, is not available that late in the school year because they begin preparing for summer camp. Besides, the Jewish schools are planning graduations and end of year parties at that time. The only dates available for the Israel Festival are before Lag Baomer.
The IAC leadership found themselves in a quandary. On the one hand, the festival is an important community event. On the other hand, they didn’t want to exclude the Orthodox community. Mr. Saidoff contacted the Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi of Israel, Rabbi David Lau, and asked him what to do. Rabbi Lau acknowledged the importance of the Israel Festival and, after ascertaining that no other dates were possible, ruled that this year it would be permissible to hold the festival before Lag Baomer, on condition that some Torah content would be added to the official program.
Rabbi Sufrin and his colleagues sprang into action. On Rabbi Lau’s suggestion, they decided to include Torah learning and a siyum on Seder Moed in the festival’s program. This year’s festival will feature an Ohel Torah, a Torah Pavilion where the attendees will be able to participate in learning Torah, regardless of their background.
The Israel Festival will begin at 10:15 a.m. with a community wide Walk for Israel, organized by Stand With Us, an international non-profit organization dedicated to supporting Israel. By 11 a.m. the attendees will return to Rancho Park and will be able to participate in various activities offered throughout the day.
The Torah Pavilion will hold the siyum at 11:45 a.m. The siyum will celebrate the completion of Seder Moed, which was divided and distributed among different schools and shuls prior to the event. It will be led by students from YULA and Shalhevet high schools.
After the siyum the IAC will host a light lunch for everyone who participated in the learning. Additional learning opportunities will be available at the Torah Pavilion throughout the day, with source sheets provided. At 1:30 p.m. Mincha will be held at the Torah Pavilion.
In addition to Ohel Torah, other booths at the festival will host activities related to the Torah Pavilion, such as making tzeddaka boxes, tie die kippas, and decorating mezuza cases.
Besides the Torah Pavilion, the festival also offers many other family friendly activities. This year’s theme is the mosaic of Jewish cultures, and the booths will feature Jewish life in various Jewish communities, such as Moroccan henna tattoos, Persian tea, Yemenite décor, Polish art, and African hair braiding.
Most importantly, the goal of the festival is Jewish unity. Rabbi Sufrin describes the previous years’ accomplishments as “breaking boundaries between communities.” The focus on unity is even greater this year than the previous years. Previously, each organization provided its members with its own T-shirt. This year, the IAC is providing the same T-shirt for everyone. “It creates a true sense of unity,” says Rabbi Sufrin. “There is no competing against each other.” The shared Torah learning of Seder Moed adds another dimension to the unity experienced by the festival’s attendees. “It’s a beautiful opportunity,” says Carri Garelick of Harkham Hillel Hebrew Academy. “One tent, one T-shirt, all walking together.”