Israel birthday bash in Oakland to mix fun with tough questions

With Israel soon to turn 63, the Jewish Federation of the East Bay is throwing a birthday party.

Voices of Israel: Celebrating Israel @ 63 is a daylong string of workshops, musicians, guest speakers and, of course, food (dinner is available for an extra charge). It will be held May 15 at Oakland’s Temple Sinai. That’s five days after Yom HaAtzmaut, Israel’s Independence Day, but who’s counting?

Rabbi Avi Novis-Deutsch

Besides celebrating Israeli Independence Day, Riva Gambert, the organizer of the event, said there is another, more parochial reason for staging Voices of Israel.

“We’ve had a great time over the years celebrating Israel Independence Day at Israel in the Gardens,” she said. “At the same time, there were requests from East Bay residents to do something around that time in the East Bay.”

The menu at Voices of Israel includes workshops on everything from Israeli humor to the latest Israeli high-tech innovations. There also will be a pair of keynote speakers probing the challenges Israel faces today, both in its own rough neighborhood and with Israeli-diaspora relations.

The event closes with “Café Tel Aviv Presents Sing Israel,” a concert of Israeli music featuring Bay Area–based Israeli musicians.

“You’re not going to learn everything about Israel at this event,” said Gambert, director of the Jewish  Federation of the East Bay’s Israel Center. “But it’s the start of learning what to ask, encouraging a more powerful engagement.”

One of the keynote speakers is retired Israel Defense Forces colonel Amos Guiora, now a professor at the S.J. Quinney College of Law at the University of Utah, who will discuss ethical decisions the Israeli military makes during wartime. The other is Avraham Infeld, president emeritus of Hillel International, and currently director of Melitz, a Jerusalem institute that fosters Jewish pluralism.

In between those two will be an array of workshops, one of which will be led by Rabbi Avi Novis-Deutsch, a leader of the Masorti (Conservative) movement in Israel.

He’s currently halfway through a two-year stay in the Bay Area as a visiting Masorti scholar. As such, he goes to Conservative synagogues to teach classes, and generally keeps the locals abreast of the movement in Israel.

His workshop at Voices of Israel — titled “The ‘Other’ in Israeli Society” — is apt, given that the Masorti movement, like all non-Orthodox streams of Judaism, struggles for acceptance in the Jewish state.

“We definitely are ‘other’ in many ways,” Novis-Deutsch said of his movement. “Masorti Jews feel totally part of Israeli society. But in terms of legal issues, we are marginalized.”

He is careful to note he has no quarrel with Israeli democracy, which grants equal rights to all, including Arab citizens, lesbians and gay Israelis, and all minorities.

But given the ways of Israel’s parliamentary politics, he says, ultra-Orthodox religious parties wield inordinate power and thus “take advantage of the system.”

“Israelis have issues with religious identity,” Novis-Deutsch adds. “We’re not really secular. We’re exploring and trying to figure out what it means. [Israelis] still want to be Jewish, so the least they can do is support the Orthodox.”

Which feeds into his unease about recent political developments related to religious minority rights, such as a proposed conversion bill that grants more authority to the Orthodox. “There’s lots going on in Israel that reflect the hegemony of the minority over the majority,” he says.

Those are just a few of the concerns attendees will ponder at Voices of Israel, which is expected to draw several hundred attendees, according to Gambert. She says recently renovated Temple Sinai is an ideal setting for the event.

As the Novis-Deutsch presentation suggests, some of the day’s content will be challenging, even as attendees celebrate Israel. But that’s how Gambert planned it all along.

“We have a Jewish community trying to create dialogue and answer difficult questions about Israel,” she says. “I like to think the overwhelming majority of Jews in the community are pro-Israel, but pro-Israel does not mean you come from one political perspective.”

“Voices of Israel: Celebrating Israel @ 63” takes place 2 to 9 p.m. May 15 at Temple Sinai, 2808 Summit St., Oakland. Registration required. $10-$25. Information: (510) 318-6453 or

Commemorating Israel — events around the Bay

When Israel turns 63 next week, Bay Area revelers will be celebrating Yom Ha-Atzmaut, Israel’s Independence Day, in different ways — and on different days.

In Palo Alto, the Oshman Family JCC will be holding a celebration on the actual day of Yom HaAtzmaut, Tuesday, May 10, from 4 to 7:30 p.m. at the Jessica L. Saal Town Square on the Taube Koret Campus for Jewish Life.

The party will feature temporary kibbutzes, each one based on a real Israeli kibbutz. The kibbutz representing the Ein Gedi Kibbutz, the only populated botanical garden in the world, will host a gardening activity; Gvar’am, an agriculture-focused kibbutz, will feature a petting zoo.

There will be more than 20 stations as well as Israeli food, music and dancing. The Oshman Family JCC is located at 3921 Fabian Way in Palo Alto.

Israeli dancing and music by three groups will be featured at a 5:30 p.m. Tuesday, May 10 party at Temple Isaiah, 3800 Mt. Diablo Blvd., Lafayette. The $5 admission fee includes a falafel dinner.

In Vallejo, Solano County’s Jewish community is throwing a big party for Yom HaAtzmaut. The event is set for May 15 from 10:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. at Congregation B’nai Israel, will feature Israeli food, merchandise, music and dancing, and a visual display of the history of the nation and the people of Israel.

The keynote speaker will be Gideon Lustig, the S.F.-based deputy consul general of Israel. The event is free and open to the public. Congregation B’nai Israel is located at 1256 Nebraska St. in Vallejo.

For a listing of other Yom HaAtzmaut celebrations, and observances for Yom HaZikaron, Israel’s Memorial Day on Monday, May 9. 


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.