New spin on Yom HaAtzmaut: Emanu-El will be celebrating Israels 64th with a seder

Pesach may have come and gone, but at Congregation Emanu-El in San Francisco, people are preparing to come together for a different kind of seder: an interactive celebration of Yom HaAtzmaut, or Israel Independence Day. The community-wide event is co-sponsored by more than 10 organizations.

“People don’t really know what to do with Yom HaAtzmaut,” said Rabbi Ryan Bauer of Emanu-El, who came up with the idea for the special seder and will lead it along with the congregation’s musical soloist, Marsha Attie. “If they do anything [to celebrate it], they sit around and eat falafel and maybe watch an Israeli movie.”

The new option at Emanu-El will give people a chance to hear the story of Israel’s history, and to talk about Israel’s past and how to stay involved in its future. The seder is scheduled for 6-9 p.m. April 26, and an authentic Israeli meal will be served.

A haggadah of sorts will be employed, one designed by Bauer to guide a discussion about Israel as being more than just what’s inside its geographic and political borders.

Rabbi Ryan Bauer

“Part of the problem is that for everyone who grew up mostly after 1948, we’ve only taught and been taught about Israel as a place,” Bauer added. “We stopped teaching the idea that the older generation had — of Israel as a concept that we’d been working for and waiting for for 2,000 years.”

That shift, said Bauer, has left many Jews with gaps in their knowledge of Israel’s history. It has also led to many American Jews feeling somehow disconnected from the Jewish state, he added.

“If we’ve only been taught about Israel as a place, it makes sense that every time they do something they shouldn’t do, the whole system falls apart,” he said. “People go, ‘Oh, it’s just another country, why should I care?’ The idea is to add some perspective, get back to that deeply internalized notion of what the place means to us, to try to see the timeline from 2,000 feet.”

Co-sponsors of the seder are Hazon, the Bureau of Jewish Education, Friends of the IDF, the Contemporary Jewish Museum, the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation’s Israel Center, the Jewish Community Relations Council, the Jewish National Fund, J Street, the New Israel Fund, American Jewish Committee and AIPAC.

The story and discussion will begin with Abraham, moving through time to the history of modern Israel and the challenges in store for present and future generations.

Bauer liked the idea of a seder because the storytelling aspect of Passover — the fact that Jews are asked to think and speak about themselves as if they personally had come out of Egypt — is part of what makes that holiday so successful, he said.

“The Passover seder is the best thing we do,” he said. “There’s a reason it has the highest percentage of observance of any of the holidays. It’s unbelievably effective, and it’s pedagogy. If you ask my 5-year-old what it’s about, she says ‘We were slaves in Egypt.’

Yom HaAtzmaut celebration at the Oshman Family JCC in 2011 photo/courtesy of ofjcc

“The fact that we’ve internalized that story has so much to do with what it means to be Jewish,” he continued. “It’s the reason Jews went down to the civil rights movement, it’s why we stood up against [the genocide in] Darfur.”

Bauer hopes that by presenting the history of Israel and the meaning of Yom HaAtzmaut in a similar narrative way, Jews can help “reclaim our memory” of Israel, and honor “what it means that we have this space where we can really carry out our dreams.

“We’ve come incredibly far — especially when you look at things like green technology there, the start-up community. But obviously we also have a very far way to go.”

For more information on the Yom HaAtzmut seder, visit or call (415) 751-2535. The cost is $5 to $10, and registration is required.

For people seeking more traditional Yom HaAtzmaut celebrations, other local congregations and Jewish communities will be featuring food, song and dance.

At the Oshman Family JCC in Palo, Tel Aviv–based fashion designers will be presenting their wares at a party April 26 that features the music and cuisines of Israelis from Morocco, Russia, Armenia, Poland, Yemen, Persia, North America and Ethiopia. In addition, Israeli singer-songwriter Idan Raichel is expected to show up at 5 p.m. for a 45-minute set.

At Temple Sinai in Oakland, Israel’s birthday party is part of the two-day Shabbat-O-Rama. At 7:30 p.m. April 27, a program titled “Israeli Songs of Love, Peace and Hope” is a musical celebration that will feature Cantor Ilene Keys, performer Achi Ben Shalom, the Temple Sinai Adult Choir and organist George Emblom. After the service, there will be Israeli dancing at the oneg.

At Berkeley’s Congregation Beth El April 26, Alan King and the Nigunim Folk Chorus will provide music and Israeli folk dance lessons.

On April 25, EastBayJews, Masa Israel Journey and the Partnership for Israel will celebrate Yom HaAtzmaut by presenting American-Israeli comedian Benji Lovitt at Mua, a bar and restaurant in Oakland.

Yom HaAtzmaut
, Israel Independence Day, is Thursday, April 26. For more details on these events and other listings, see Calendar, page 33.

Emma Silvers

Emma Silvers is a former J. staff writer.