Thousands expected at annual S.F. Israel fest

Reunions tend to be a mixed bag of standard treats, but most don't feature the classic Israel rock band Kaveret.

And most don't number the estimated 15,000 expected to show up for the mass reunion Sunday, June 1 at " Israel in the Gardens" in San Francisco. The free event runs from noon to 5 p.m. at Yerba Buena Gardens at Fourth at Mission streets.

In an attempt to turn the annual celebration of Israel's independence into a community-building institution, the San Francisco Israel Center has organized a reunion for those who have been on organized trips to Israel.

Celebrating Israel's 55th anniversary — which fell officially on May 7 this year — the festival is adding a new component, along with the usual live Israeli music and arts and crafts.

"Israel has gone through so much in 55 years, and from the beginning there have been American tours going there to witness how its grown and changed and developed," said Nicki Gilbert, director of this year's festival. "We know that Israel is arts and music and culture, but an equally large part of Israel's history are the American trips that spend weeks, months and years there."

The reunions, from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. are expected to draw alumni from youth tours and Otzma. In addition, Camp Tawonga and Brandeis Hillel Day School will hold reunions.

Once the old Israel trip photographs have been passed around and put back in the wallets, the nostalgia for Israel still piping-fresh, visitors can explore the 5.5-acre sprawl of Israel foods, arts and crafts booths, face painters and folk dancers. Topping off a day of art and culture, the festival will host a special reunion of the classic Israeli folk group Kaveret, Gazoz & Doda, performed by Gidi Gov, Danny Sanderson & Friends.

The goal, said Gilbert, is to have the entire Jewish community pull together in a show of solidarity to celebrate Israel and its people.

The festival will present hands-on workshops, magic and shopping, along with music on the main stage and a wealth of Israeli artists, craft booths, face painters and folk dancers.

"It's our way of showing pride in the amazing achievements that have come out of Israel in the past 55 years," she said. "The festival highlights the character of Israel as it's expressed through more than 50 years of art, science and history."

At one end of Yerba Buena Gardens, children's entertainer Diana Shmiana will be performing with her puppets, and storyteller Joel ben Izzy will host and perform a series of shows.

Further down, the Israel Antiquities Union will make a return appearance, bringing with it pieces of pottery and mosaic games straight from Israel.

Balloon artists and face painters will be scattered throughout the park as A Traveling Jewish Theater performs a children's show on the main stage.

Producers said they have nearly double the number of art vendors as last year, now topping out at 30 Israeli artists. There will also be more crafts booths and main-stage performances.

Both the boost in events and the addition of the reunion theme are meant to turn the annual festival from merely an Israel Center event into more of a community-building affair, said organizers.

"We are focusing on moving 'Israel in the Gardens' from regular event to community-building tool in terms of the festival's content, style and method," said Shlomi Ravid, director of the Israel Center. This transition, he said, comes in response to a message he has heard from the community for quite some time.

"We were seeing that people congregate around what unites them, and the love of Israel seems to be that kind of concept," he said.