Thousands gather in S.F. to celebrate Israel

With last week’s global rush to condemn Israel on the minds of many, thousands of people flocked to Israel in the Gardens on June 6 in San Francisco.

Most of them simply were intent on enjoying a gorgeously sunny Sunday afternoon, devouring falafel and hummus, and visiting the arts and other booths at Yerba Buena Gardens. But many also were intent on celebrating Israel less than a week after Israel Defense Forces commandos staged a controversial interception of a Gaza-bound ship.

Shari Weissner and daughter Dani make tzedakah boxes in the Kids’ Zone. photo/amanda pazornik

“We wanted to show our support for Israel,” said Danielle Hershon, an 18-year-old from Danville who attended the annual event with her twin sister, Sarah. “It’s important to surround yourself with likeminded people and demonstrate support against all the negative media coverage.”

As always, Jewish music, Middle Eastern food and blue-and-white Israeli flags provided the backdrop for a day of sun-drenched shmoozing.

Magali Cohen, a 26-year-old who volunteers with the San Francisco Bay Area chapter of Friends of the IDF, roamed the grounds with a camera operator, taping people’s messages of support for Israeli soldiers — which will be forwarded to the troops.

Summing up the viewpoints of those she was interviewing, Cohen said, “People are very impassioned and vehemently pro-Israel. I expected people to be a little more reserved.”

She added: “I’ve been coming to Israel in the Gardens for 10 years and there’s a unified vibrancy in the [Bay Area] Jewish community toward the IDF.”

Crowd gathers beneath sunny skies at Yerba Buena Gardens. photo/amanda pazornik

Robert Weinger, the founder of Shofar So Great, a one-man mobile shofar-blowing service, said he was “proud to stand here in solidarity with Israel.”

Then he stuck two of his ornate, elongated shofars into his mouth and blew them both at once. “I go all over the world to sound the shofar,” he said.

At the Be’chol Lashon Kids’ Zone across the way, a cacophonous drum circle started up around noon, with kids of all ages banging on dumbeks, bongos and plastic tubs. The Henna Lounge was busy, too, with a steady stream of customers lined up to have their hands painted up like those of a Bedouin bride.

Though all four of Northern California’s Jewish federations (headquartered in San Francisco, Oakland, Los Gatos and Sacramento) were represented at this year’s event, there were noticeably fewer booths than in previous years.

Israeli band T-Slam performs. photo/dan pine

Unlike in years past, there were no synagogue booths, although members from Congregation Sherith Israel in San Francisco spread a blanket on the lawn and gave away plastic, yellow hard hats, signifying the seismic retrofit the synagogue is undergoing.

“The hard hats are to show we’re still alive and kicking,” said congregant Jane Blatteis.

Not far away, dozens of local Jewish teens were sprawled out on the lawn, decked out in blue T-shirts and talking eagerly about their upcoming Let’s Go Israel trip (sponsored by the S.F.-based Bureau of Jewish Education).

“It’s special to share this [event] with my fellow Jews,” said 16-year-old Kensington resident Sophie Siegel, who departs for Israel with 89 other Bay Area teens on June 23. “The bond you feel is so strong.”

Because of the widespread outcry over the May 31 incident in international waters, in which nine Turkish activists died after IDF navy commandos boarded a cargo ship headed for Gaza, planners worked overtime to make sure Israel in the Gardens was safe.

Security in and around the park was beefed up compared to previous years, with inspectors searching bags and passing metal detectors over everyone that entered. San Francisco Police Department motorcycle units drove up and down the part of Mission Street that borders the north side of Yerba Buena Gardens, and uniformed officers patrolled the grounds.

For those anxious about noisy and perhaps aggressive anti-Israel protests, the added security seemed to pay off. The only significant demonstration took place when Women in Black, a pro-Palestinian group, marched silently in front of the Gardens for less than an hour.

Otherwise, all was festive on the Western front.

“We did kick [security] up a notch,” said Allan Lavigne, director of security and safety with the S.F.-based Jewish Community Relations Council. “We worked closely with the SFPD and the FBI. [Anti-Israel protesters] saw they weren’t going to have much of an impact this year.”

Once Israeli rockers T-Slam took the stage a little after 3 p.m., protesters wouldn’t have been heard no matter how noisy they might have been.

Robert Weinger blows two shofars at once. photo/dan pine

“This is music from my era,” Akiva Tor, consul general of the Consulate General of Israel for the Pacific Northwest, said of T-Slam, a classic ’80s hard rock band that reunites for an album or tour every few years.

Taking it all in was Meirav Yaron, a native Israeli who works for BlueStar PR, a pro-Israel public relations firm in San Francisco. She comes to Israel in the Gardens every year, but for her, the profuse public affection for her homeland never gets old.

“I’m surrounded by people who love Israel,” she said as the event began to wind down for 2010. “After last week, with what happened [with the flotilla], there’s no place I’d rather be.”

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a contributing editor at J. He was a longtime staff writer at J. and retired as news editor in 2020.