Israel festival draws 35,000

Times Staff Writer

With myriad blue-and-white Israeli flags tucked into strollers, strung across tents and hitched to the backs of skydivers, about 35,000 people celebrated the 59th year of Israel's independence Sunday in the San Fernando Valley.

The Israel Independence Day Festival served as a moment of solidarity and reflection in a difficult year when Israeli soldiers were kidnapped and another war started with Lebanon, said Ehud Danoch, the consul general of Israel for the southwestern U.S.

"This is a day to celebrate the strength of the people of Israel," said Danoch, who is based in Los Angeles. "Every day we face challenges in the Middle East. We are the only democracy in a very hostile neighborhood."

The festival celebrates the Declaration of the Establishment of the State of Israel in 1948, as the British rule of Palestine expired.

Los Angeles, which has the largest Israeli community outside of Israel, started celebrating the nation's independence 19 years ago at the Scottish Rite Temple auditorium on Wilshire Boulevard, said Amnon Peery, who helped organize the first event. In the last few years as crowds grew, the event has taken place at Woodley Avenue Park in Encino.

"It started with 3,000, and we got almost 50,000 for the 50th anniversary," said Peery, 70, of Tarzana, wearing an "I {heart} Israel" sticker on his shirt. Attendance has dropped a little since, but Peery said he hoped next year's 60th anniversary would draw a larger crowd.

"We're trying to bring the biggest singer in Israel to attract more people," he said.

The festival aims to bring together the Jewish communities scattered across Southern California and re-create the atmosphere of home for expatriates, said Ami Magal, 57, who heads public relations for the festival.

"Our goal is to expose the day-to-day Israel," he said. "You want to hear music, talk to people. You want to get the aroma of Israel."

The scent of falafel and schwarma, a meat dish, hung in the hot afternoon air. Under Israeli and U.S. flags hung from tent eaves, families greeted one another with "shalom" and tight hugs.

Teenagers hawked shirts with parodies of popular logos, such as "Just Jew it," a twist on the Nike slogan. Shoppers browsed vintage menorahs and brochures of Jewish day schools.

A few protesters who hoped to persuade the regional Jewish Community Center agency not to close down a unit in Sherman Oaks hoisted signs saying, "Neighbors don't hurt neighbors."

As young singer Yosi Tzadok trilled a traditional Mediterranean-style song, Jack Pincus, 54, of Northridge finished a falafel lunch.

Pincus said he had attended the festival for the last few years to show support for Israel.

"With all the terrorism, with all the Arab states against Israel and the U.S., allies of Israel need to stick together," he said. "This is a good way to show support."

Besides, he added, "you can't sit home and watch the Lakers every day."

Aubry Sheiman, 20, said she was impressed by the number of Israelis at the festival and planned to practice her Hebrew.

It is necessary for American Jews to support Israel, said Sheiman, a student at UCLA who planned to study in Israel next year.

"Israel was established to prevent Jews going through another horrific event like the Holocaust," she said. "If anything were to happen like that again, other countries might turn a blind eye, but Israel wouldn't let that happen."

Sheiman brought along two non-Jewish friends who said they hadn't realized that Los Angeles had such a bustling celebration of Israel Independence Day.

A dozen elected officials, including Los Angeles City Councilman Bernard C. Parks and county Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, also showed their support for Israel.

Taking pictures with festival-goers in front of a computerized image of the Western Wall in Jerusalem, Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa said he had attended the last nine festivals to show his sympathy for the city's large Israeli and Jewish population.

"Every year I reaffirm support for Israel because every year Israel is under assault," he said.

Varda Stern, 63, of Encino, who remembers being hoisted onto her father's shoulders in Tel Aviv the day independence was declared, May 14, 1948, said she was glad Southern California had such a vibrant Israeli community.

"I was talking on the phone with my girlfriend from Redwood City," Stern said. "She said, 'I envy you.' They don't have anything like this up there."

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