Universal Jewish Festival Celebrates Israel’s 70th Anniversary and the Monumental Success of Birthright
After a year of planning, Team Israel presented the Bring Israel Home Los Angeles Reunion and the Universal Jewish Festival from November 16th to November 18th at the Universal Hilton. The weekend included an unforgettable reunion of over 300 alumni of Birthright-Taglit, which brings hundreds of thousands of Jewish youth to Israel for the first time.
To celebrate Israel’s 70th birthday, Team Israel visionary Abigail Goldberg thought of creating a major event. This led her to join forces with the Orthodox Union and Rabbi David Pardo, Executive Director of the Bring Israel Home program.
“I just want to say that I’ve been shopping, because that’s what I’m really good at, for about 10 years, looking for what am I going to do when my kids go to college,” said the effusive Goldberg. “I have gone to every event…and this [Birthright-Taglit] is the best program I have seen out there, anywhere.”
The American participants of Birthright-Taglit, aged 20-27, went to Israel this past summer. Their Israeli counterparts, many of whom received leave from active duty in order to attend the festivities, participated in a week-long leadership seminar. At the seminar, they met many American Jewish leaders and were exposed to American Judaism in a way that better equips them to help reverse the growing gap between Israelis and Americans.
The 80 alumni who attended the shabbaton part of the event first fulfilled 100 points of Jewish activity on bringisraelhome.com. Activities included hosting a Shabbos meal, learning a Jewish text, and attending local events. “Everything, in every aspect of life, has been gamified,” said Rabbi Pardo. “Every time I go to Starbucks, I get points…So someone had this idea: ‘Everybody in the world is doing points, except for the Jews. Why don’t we do that, also?’ We said, ‘We just offer 45,000 18-32-year-olds a free trip to Israel. Why don’t we have them earn the next thing?’ And they earn the next thing by acquiring points.” Bringisraelhome.com, which “looks a bit like Facebook,” even has an app called Wrap: “Kind of like Uber for Tefillin,” explains Rabbi Pardo. Though most of the weekend’s participants came from unaffiliated backgrounds, they observed all the Torah laws during the shabbaton.
“I really want this event to be our blueprint,” said Goldberg, a self-described secular Jew from Long Island. “I want this blueprint to be kind of a structure and a footprint of what we want to do for the future.”
The weekend kicked off with a pre-Shabbos concert on Friday, and Shabbos wrapped up with a musical havdalah Saturday night. Prayer services ranged from traditional davening to guided meditation. Participants engaged in intense and constructive dialogue around real issues surrounding the growing gap between American and Israeli Jews and listened to compelling speakers and teachers. They enjoyed a sheshbesh tournament, hosted by Jimena, as well as a shukfest, which brought together different L.A. Jewish organizations. Sunday included a screening of an extended trailer about American Birthright, as well as dialogue with the director, Becky Tahel Bordo, in the Spielberg Theater. The event culminated in a concert in front of Universal Citywalk’s Hard Rock Café, featuring international recording star Gad Elbaz, Moshav Band, D.J. Yoav, and Tal Vaknin. The OU’s Black Tie Catering provided food for the event.
The Universal Jewish Festival provided participants with reflection on the past, as well as resolve toward the future. Goldberg hoped to ensure continuity of their Israel experience through the Bring Israel Home Los Angeles Reunion and the Universal Jewish Festival. “This year, we have five floors,” said Goldberg. “Next year, we take over the entire Hilton!”