Israel in the Gardens | Daylong celebration marks 65 years of statehood

Longtime attendees of Israel in the Gardens may notice something different at the annual celebration this year: It’s a lot more Israeli.

With Israel’s 65th anniversary upon us, it makes sense to unfurl the blue-and-white as never before. Israel in the Gardens takes place Sunday, June 2 from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. at Yerba Buena Gardens in San Francisco.

“We really have made the effort to give it a genuine Israeli flavor for 65,” said Donny Inbar, associate director for arts and culture at the S.F.-based Israel Center, and one of the event’s key organizers.

Israel in the Gardens this year features several new attractions that should add authentic Israeli flair. For example, the S.F.-based Israeli Consulate will host Tel Aviv Plaza, which will replicate the breezy, laid-back atmosphere of Tel Aviv’s beaches and tayelet (the city’s celebrated boardwalk).

It will be located in the paved area just east of the main stage. Sadly, organizers could not import a few tons of velvety Tel Aviv beach sand to make the experience complete.

Bay Area–based Israeli dance instructor Udy Gold will lead Israeli folk dances, while Israeli fitness expert Tal Cohen will lead free Zumba classes on the plaza all day.

For the less physically inclined, the plaza will have a backgammon tourney going. Some may prefer to read the latest edition of Yediot Achronot and other Israeli dailies at the newsstand. And some top Israeli fashion designers will display their latest couture for kids and women.

Also new this year: Innovation Alley, which will showcase the startup nation in all its high-tech glory. Some two dozen Israeli companies, including Tapingo, Tawkon, and UpWest Labs, will be on hand to present, Inbar says, “their hottest, coolest and most cutting-edge innovations, like new systems, new apps.”

Some of those companies are looking to hire, so prospective employees should bring resumes.

Throngs of people pack a sunny Yerba Buena Gardens for last year’s celebration. photo/jon roisman

As always, many Israelis will attend Israel in the Gardens this year. Two of them are partners of the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation’s Amutah, its Israel-based philanthropy.

Yisroel Hofrichter is director of Shachar Chadash (New Dawn), a program that helps ease the path for Israel’s ultra-Orthodox to serve in the Israeli military. Yifat Ovadia is founder of Olim Beyachad, an organization that integrates Ethiopian immigrants into the Israeli work world.

“Both work with broadening the scope of Israeli mainstream society,” said Michal Kohane, director of the Israel Center.  “They will be introduced from the stage and will be at an area called Talk Israel Now to share their stories.”

For Israel’s 65th anniversary, Israel in the Gardens this year will host a “Walk the Land” event, similar to those launched worldwide five years ago in solidarity with Israel.

Participants will be handed Israeli flags and packets of vegetable seeds from Israel, then walk the perimeter of Yerba Buena Gardens, led by Peter Bonas’ klezmer Orchestra Euphonos. To paraphrase Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, it’s a way of praying with the feet.

The main stage will see a steady parade of dignitaries, celebrities and Jewish community leaders. Among those who may get the biggest applause are Bay Area teens preparing to join the Israel Defense Forces through a program called Garin Tzabar, which helps foreign-born recruits in Israel’s army. They will take a bow this year.

When it comes to live music, Israel in the Gardens always books major Israeli entertainers. That’s true this year with headliner Mosh Ben Ari as well as three Bay Area-based Israeli bands: Sol Tevél, the Tribal Blues Band and Peatot.

The lineup also features one band that proves you don’t have to be Jewish to play Jewish music. The Hebrew Project is an African-American choir from Stockton that sings Jewish liturgical music.

“They are Israel supporters,” Inbar says, “and they love the Hebrew Bible. Their music director set biblical verses to music, and it sounds terrific.”

Kids always have a ball at Israel in the Gardens. As in years past, Be’chol Lashon sponsors the Kids and Family Zone, which will fulfill any child’s need for games, crafts and face painting.

And before any of this, a “pre-party” will take place the night before, starting 9:30 p.m., June 1, at the 111 Minna Gallery in San Francisco. Tzavta, the Israel Center’s Young Adult Division, along with the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation’s Young Adult Division, will sponsor the event.

As the Bay Area’s largest Jewish community event of the year, no Israel in the Gardens would be complete without the Tents of Community, at which scores of local synagogues, Jewish agencies and other Jewish institutions meet, greet and shmooze.

All in all, the event should be a great way to celebrate Israel on this milestone 65th birthday.

Kohane says she wants Israel in the Gardens to be the ultimate community get-together. “For 364 days we may have disagreements,” she says. “On one day we can set that aside and be one community, standing together with something that unites us.”

Israel in the Gardens, 11 a.m.-5 p.m., Yerba Buena Gardens, 750 Howard St., S.F.

on the cover
photo/dani vernon

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.