U.S. Jews launch year of events to mark Israels 50th anniversary

NEW YORK — While Israeli officials have yet to decide how to celebrate Israel's jubilee, America launched its own festivities last week.

The first night of Chanukah on Tuesday of last week marked the official kickoff of Israel's 50th anniversary, as leaders of some 40 countries lit a menorah in their respective capital cities.

In Jerusalem, Israeli President Ezer Weizman lit a chanukiah at his official residence. President Clinton lit the first Chanukah candle in an Oval Office ceremony Tuesday with students from a local Jewish day school.

The celebration in the United States is designed to "get people to understand the history of the state of Israel and to celebrate the joy that it's 50," said Arlene Kausman, co-chair of the "Israel at 50" Anniversary Committee.

The committee, a joint effort of the United Jewish Appeal and the Council of Jewish Federations, is helping communities across the country schedule activities by informing them of what's available, she said.

Most of the U.S.-based events are cultural, involving tours by Israeli performers and artists, but some educational programs are also being planned.

In Israel, the majority of events have not yet been scheduled because of an array of budgetary and bureaucratic problems. Jubilee planners in Israel have indicated they may scale back events planned in the diaspora and delay events in Israel until April 30, Israel's Independence Day.

Planning for Israel's 50th anniversary year has also had its share of trouble in the United States, where concern about religious pluralism in the Jewish state and the stalled peace process may account for the unexpectedly small number of events planned nationally.

In August, actor Billy Crystal and other Hollywood celebrities indicated that they would not appear at a celebration in Los Angeles because of the controversy about religious pluralism.

Despite such divisions, American Jewry should be coming together "to celebrate 50 years of a miracle," said Constance Smukler, co-chair of Israel 50, a nonprofit group organizing more than 100 events in Philadelphia.

"Who would have thought that 50 years ago the country would have such accomplishments in medicine and science and bring in hundreds of thousands of Soviet and Ethiopian Jews?"

Philadelphia will host one of the first major jubilee events in the country.

The event is slated for Jan. 24, when the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra and the Philadelphia Orchestra are scheduled to perform a special concert called "Hear, O Israel" at a city arena that can seat 18,000.

The program, a joint effort by City Hall, the local Jewish federation and Israeli Consulate, will tell Israel's history in music and narration, with the participation of actors Leonard Nimoy and Richard Dreyfuss. Part of the evening's profits will be used to fund other events being planned for Philadelphia through June, Smukler said.

The UJA plans to provide a live satellite hookup so that communities across the country can see the concert.

UJA and CJF staffers, till collecting information about planned activities in communities across the country, remain upbeat that other cities will emulate Philadelphia.

"The Jewish world and the state of Israel can't afford to miss this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity," said Ron Friedman, director of Israel at 50 for UJA. "This is a celebration of diaspora Jewry and of Israel."

The Los Angeles event, which Crystal and others have declined to attend, will be shown as a CBS television special, "America and its Friends Salute Israel" on April 15. The program is expected to be the highlight of jubilee events in Los Angeles.

The event is being produced by Don Mischer and Gil Cates. Mischer produced the 1996 Olympic Games opening ceremonies show, and Cates has produced seven Academy Awards shows and more than 25 films.

The UJA-CJF anniversary committee is also sponsoring four traveling exhibits on themes related to Israel:

*A mural depicting scenes from Israel's War of Independence, created by Israeli artist Avner Moriah. "Against the Odds" also includes a series of 10 smaller paintings showing the sequence of the war. After its U.S. tour, the exhibit will be displayed in the Ammunition Hill War Memorial Museum in Israel.

*"The People of Israel at 50," a contemporary photo display by Zion Ozeri that depicts images of Israel's modern citizens.

*Photos taken by members of the Palmach, the mobilized strike force of the Haganah.

*Fifty years of partnership between the UJA, the Jewish Agency for Israel and the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee.

Locally, Jewish community relations councils are also planning cultural and education events. The Bay Area is hosting a seven-month array of programs, which started in December.

Israel's 50th birthday provides "opportunities to plan substantive programs for relations between the U.S. and Israel," said Martin Raffel, associate executive vice chairman of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs.

While the JCPA has been encouraging local Jewish community relations councils to sponsor Jewish community events, Raffel said, "We have a special responsibility for outreach with the non-Jewish community."

The community relations council of the Jewish Federation of Central New Jersey, for example, has been sending trained volunteers to local schools to present "Hello Israel," a 90-minute program about Israel's culture and history.

The program, which was developed 20 years ago by the National Council of Jewish Women, aims to educate youths that "Israel is a living, vibrant country," said Eleanor Rubin, chair of the Central New Jersey CRC and national chair of Hello Israel.

Rubin said the program was recently well-received at a predominantly Hispanic and African American school in Elizabeth, N.J.

The JCPA is planning to hold a Beit Midrash program — an interactive study session — to mark Israel's jubilee at its annual meeting in February in Ft. Lauderdale, Fla.

Jewish college students who will be attending the JCPA convention as part of the annual meeting of the Hillel Foundation will engage in discussions with community relations leaders who personally remember events in 1948, or who reached maturity at the time of the 1967 Six-Day War.