Jewish community declines to join Festival at the Lake

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Oakland's annual multicultural fest won't have an official Jewish presence after all.

Still smarting from Festival at the Lake's scheduled kickoff date, set for Yom Kippur, the East Bay's organized Jewish community last week reversed its previous decision to participate on the second day of the weekend celebration.

"We decided next year would be more suitable…We felt it would be too controversial this year," Siggy Rubinson of the Jewish Community Relations Council said last week. "We're not boycotting it. It's a very passive non-participation."

Festival organizers angered some Jews earlier this year when they inadvertently scheduled the multicultural celebration for the weekend of Oct. 11 and 12.

Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the Jewish year and the one that attracts more Jews to synagogue than any other, begins this year at sunset Friday, Oct. 10, and ends after sunset Saturday, Oct. 11.

Though Jewish groups and individuals repeatedly asked festival planners to pick a different weekend, the organizers said they had no alternative. The decision became final in late July.

About 80,000 people are expected to attend the 15th annual celebration.

The official withdrawal came in an Aug. 21 letter from Rubinson, director of the JCRC's East Bay office, and Ami Nahshon, executive vice president of the Jewish Federation of the Greater East Bay

Steve Tiffin, Festival at the Lake's executive director, wasn't pleased with the decision.

"I was disappointed, but I understand," he said Friday of last week. "We were hoping to use this mistake to educate people, to really make lemonade out of lemons. By them not participating, it makes it harder for us to do that."

At this point, no Jewish groups are planning to set up booths at the event.

The festival will still showcase Jewish storytellers and music groups on its second day, said Jill Rose, the festival's program director. The groups include Vocolot, RebbeSoul, California Klezmer and the Joel Abramson Simcha Orchestra.

Abramson, an Oakland resident, had no qualms about performing. "I'm satisfied. They made their mistake. They made their apologies," he said.

The Jewish community's decision not to participate came despite the festival's attempts to make amends for the scheduling.

Festival officials made an exception to their rules, giving Jewish groups the option of participating only on the second day. They also promised to hire extra Jewish entertainment, help nearby congregations with parking for Yom Kippur and put up signs on the first day to mark the Jewish community's absence.

At first, the JCRC and other Jewish groups decided to participate on Sunday. Last month, Rubinson said the JCRC and Jewish Community Services of Oakland and Piedmont were planning to create a booth about Sukkot or Oakland's Jewish history.

But Rubinson said last week that the initial decision "didn't sit well, it seemed.

"The people who were angry were angrier than those who didn't care." she said.

The decision against participating rose from a consensus among staff, lay leaders and other organizations, Nahshon said on Friday of last week.

"We decided because of the sensitivity in the Jewish community and respect for those institutions and individuals who had strong feelings about the timing of the festival this year, it was appropriate for the federation to start its Sunday-only participation in the festival in 1998," he said.

Haggai Wolff, executive director of Jewish Community Services, added that there was miscommunication with the JCRC about his organization's potential involvement.

"I was really supportive of the idea" of setting up a booth, he said. "But I did say I needed to check it out" with his group's advisory council of lay leaders. The council won't be able to discuss the issue before its September meeting, however. Wolff expects the discussion will take place too late for anything to happen.

Meanwhile, the festival is helping downtown Oakland synagogues Temple Beth Abraham and Temple Sinai with alternative parking.

Festival officials also will help Kehilla Community Synagogue, a Berkeley-based congregation that holds its High Holy Day services for up to 800 at the First Congregational Church in downtown Oakland. The church is two blocks from the lake.

Marcia Brooks, Kehilla's executive director, said the festival is providing two attendants to guard the entrance of a parking lot adjacent to the church. It also will provide an extra shuttle bus to BART on Saturday night.

Despite such measures, Brooks still feels somewhat frustrated.

"We have to do the best we can," she said. "It's going to be as okay as it can be."