Thousands ready to party at annual celebration of Israel

Some 15,000 people are expected to attend Israel in the Gardens this Sunday, which will make the June 10 festival Northern California’s largest Jewish community gathering of the year, according to Amit Caspi, the event’s project coordinator.

“We are proud of that responsibility,” Caspi said. “This is not just a celebration of Israel, but of the whole Jewish community here. We hope people will come out and see what we are talking about.”

Caspi, who works for the S.F.-based Israel Center, estimated about 12,000 people attended last year, despite less-than-stellar weather (it rained much of the week before the event).

The Israel Center, run under the auspices of the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation, coordinates Israel in the Gardens. The San Francisco gathering, now in its 12th year, is set for 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Sunday, June 10 at Yerba Buena Gardens, 4th and Mission streets. The annual after-party for those 21 and older runs from 5:30 to 9:30 p.m. at the Cellar, 685 Sutter St.

Israel in the Gardens’ 2007 celebration at Yerba Buena Gardens

The day is anchored by a strong entertainment lineup, with three major Israeli acts set to perform — Voca People at 1:45 p.m., Efrat Gosh and the Peatot at 2 p.m. and Balkan Beat Box at 3 p.m. Throughout the day, attendees can shop at the shuk, where 21 artists will display their wares, and shmooze with representatives from 55 Jewish organizations and agencies.

Another highlight will be a set of roundtable community conversations, which will seek to replicate — on a smaller scale — the epic “Night of 1,000 Tables” held last September in Tel Aviv. Israeli Danny Gal, who helped organize that event, in which 5,000 Israelis sat down peacefully after a summer of protests to discuss the country’s social and economic issues, is helping to organize the San Francisco version.

“The invitation is to come speak about what it means to belong to the local Jewish community,” Gal told j. “We plan to have people answer, then switch tables, allowing [them] to meet as many [people] as possible. That way we access the collective wisdom of the group, to identify the main issues in the Jewish community.”

The plan is to set up 10 tables in Yerba Buena Gardens and hold three 45-minute dialogue sessions: starting at 12:30 p.m., 2 p.m. and 3:30 p.m. Gal hopes as many as 150 people will take part.

Teens and kids will have separate entertainment spots with age-appropriate music and workshops, and short films will be shown at the nearby Contemporary Jewish Museum from noon to 4 p.m. At 1 p.m., there will be a walk to commemorate Hadassah’s centennial that will include members of the U.C. Berkeley Marching Band. The band will return for an encore performance at 2:45 p.m.

Things kick off at 11 a.m. with bands from Brandeis Hillel Day School’s two campuses, the Jewish Community High School’s Jew Man Group, and a rock band and the three-student rap group 99 Llamas from Contra Costa Jewish Day School. And if that’s not enough to put people in the right frame of mind, at 11:30 a.m. there will be a yoga session.

As for food, Caspi said four vendors will offer menus that include falafel, borekas, Italian ices and gluten-free matzah. Kosher food, including hot dogs, will available from a catering company called Kosher Affairs.

The Flying Falafel, a food vendor based in Sunnyvale, will make its sixth straight Israel in the Gardens appearance. Owner Assaf Pashut, a U.C. Berkeley grad, says working the festival presents some challenges — such as restrictions that mean he and his staff must cook their falafel at a kitchen a few blocks away and then hustle it over to festival grounds — but he anticipates big crowds once again.

“I don’t want people to be waiting too long,” he said. “We’re going to have eight lines.”

For a complete festival schedule, visit