15,000 gather in S.F. for a sizzling Israel in the Gardens

The weather in San Francisco for Israel’s 64th birthday party could not have been nicer for the estimated 15,000 people who came to celebrate on June 10.

The 12th annual Israel in the Gardens was held under perfectly clear skies in Yerba Buena Gardens, where festivalgoers enjoyed live music, danced, picnicked and socialized on sweltering day when temperatures reached well into the 80s.

Thousands enjoy the 12th annual Israel in the Gardens under a blue sky. photo/jon roisman

Israeli  musician Efrat Gosh (playing with the Bay Area–based band The Peatot), an Israeli performance group of “aliens” known as the Voca People, the Cal Marching Band from U.C. Berkeley and other entertainers played on the main stage. Israeli headliner Balkan Beat Box did a 100-minute set later in the afternoon.

New this year were three community roundtable sessions that invited people to sit down and converse with each other about what it means to be part of the local Jewish community. Some 50 people participated in the roundtables.

“Those who came were so engaged, so taken by the conversation,” said event facilitator Danny Gal, who organized the groundbreaking “Night of 1,000 Tables” dialogue sessions in his hometown of Tel Aviv last September.

“They have gone through a transformative experience of listening to each other, respecting each other and being able to stay together,” Gal said, “although we are different and hold different views.”

Molly Maloney (right) and Casey Braff were ambassadors for the Jewish Partisan Educational Foundation. photo/barbara loebel

Corky Wick, a communications professor at City College of San Francisco, was engaged in the first discussion group. “I’ve never been to something like this. It’s really valuable when people are talking,” Wick said. “I love the sense of being with other Jews, and I think it doesn’t happen enough.”

Circling the main lawn were booths and tables representing 50-plus organizations, set up to educate and share information with festivalgoers. The Israel Center, which coordinates Israel in the Gardens under the auspices of the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation, had its own “Fed Café.”

Nearby, Yelena Neyman, 50, was attending her fifth Israel in the Gardens. The San Francisco resident said she liked wandering around among the different organizations. “It’s one of the places where you can be Jewish and you feel part of the big Jewish community.”

Over at Kosher Affairs, Mendel Pil, 23, and the rest of the catering company served up hot dogs (kosher, of course) to a seemingly endless line of hungry customers.

The crowd gets on its feet for Israeli headliner Balkan Beat Box. photo/sue fishkoff

Pil said he loved working the event but hopes to return another year just for fun. “It’s great but hard at the same time,” Pil said. “It’s great that they’ve got music in the background and everyone’s having a fun time. The annoying part is that you’re not there” to enjoy it.

While he was disappointed he couldn’t watch Balkan Beat Box, he did enjoy the customers. “I love to work and talk to the people and interact,” Pil said.

In the kids’ zone, children and parents took part in a drum circle, while in the O-Zone teen area, DJ Aaron David got people to dance along to an eclectic mix of music.

Voca People, an Israeli group that has had more than 10 million views on YouTube, treats the crowd to its unusual array of sounds. photo/jon roisman

Security was tight, with staff using hand-held metal detectors and doing bag searches as people entered the Gardens. The crowd swelled between about noon and 2 p.m. Protesters were noticeably absent, unless one counts the lone man holding a “Jesus Christ Loves You” sign.

Marvin Ishai, 70, came from Oakland to attend for the first time. “I heard that there were going to be counterdemonstrations to this festival and I decided I should show up,” he said.

Ishai said he took part in a community roundtable and was impressed overall with what he saw in the Gardens. “I’m sure I’ll be back.”