Yom HaAtzmaut celebration at Congregation Emanu El in San Francisco, May 1, 2017. (File photo)
Yom HaAtzmaut celebration at Congregation Emanu El in San Francisco, May 1, 2017. (File photo)

Even in crisis, Israel at 75 deserves celebration, local planners say

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In the middle of an unprecedented political crisis in Israel, is it OK for Bay Area Jews to celebrate the 75th anniversary of the Jewish state?

The answer, in short, is yes.

“We don’t want to pretend nothing is going on in Israel,” said Ronit Jacobs, the Israeli-born senior director of Israeli Cultural Connection at the Oshman Family JCC and organizer of the upcoming Israel@75: A Bay Area Community Festival.

Marking the milestone while acknowledging current events, festival organizers plan to set up round tables where attendees can engage in moderated conversations about different topics, including the political turmoil around Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s proposed overhaul of the judiciary, which supporters feel is long overdue and critics argue would degrade Israel’s democracy.

Those critics began taking to the streets of Israel early this year, culminating in protests so widespread that Netanyahu temporarily pulled the judicial plan in late March. Protests have taken place in the Jewish Bay Area and across the U.S. as well.

Israeli expats and others gathered at Crissy Field in San Francisco to protest the Netanyahu-led government back home, April 26, 2023. (Photo/Courtesy UnXeptable)
Israeli expats and others gathered at Crissy Field in San Francisco to protest the Netanyahu-led government back home, April 26, 2023. (Photo/Courtesy UnXeptable)

“Everybody gets their say,” Jacobs said. “A lot of people have feelings about what’s going on in Israel, whether right, center or left.”

Jacobs understands that such feelings could color this year’s Yom HaAtzmaut, Israel Independence Day. At the same time, Israel’s 75th anniversary is a huge achievement, so last fall she started recruiting partners for a big celebration.

Partners for the April 30 festival in San Mateo include most Bay Area JCCs, along with synagogues, day schools, Hillels and a diverse range of groups and foundations.

“We said, let’s do it as a big Bay Area community event,” Jacobs added. “I’m hopeful it will be a wonderful time for us as a community to get together.”

The Bay Area’s other large-scale Yom HaAtzmaut celebration this year is IsraFest75. The Contra Costa JCC is organizing the festival, set for April 30 in Alamo.

RELATED: Where to celebrate Israel at 75 around the Bay Area

“Politics has not entered into the planning discussion,” ​IsraFest75 co-organizer Riva Gambert said, regardless of personal views that individuals may have.

Riva Gambert
Riva Gambert

“From the very beginning, the feeling is that this is a celebration of the people of Israel, the importance of Israel in our lives, and the near miracle that we can have a Jewish state,” Gambert said.

If anything, Gambert sees the intense political struggle among Israelis as a testament to the country’s vibrant, if imperfect, democracy.

“That makes us want to support Israel’s 75th year of independence even more so,” she said. The protests there “have in many ways removed a lot of the apathy of taking Israel for granted, when we see Israelis caring so much about their own country, its future and what it will be in the next 75 years.”

Bay Area Jewish leaders are mindful of the local impact of Israel’s political crisis.

Reform Congregation Sherith Israel in San Francisco is an Israel@75 festival partner. Gordon Gladstone, Sherith Israel’s executive director, said he believes the recent political turmoil has unnerved some congregants.

Children sing at a 2014 Yom HaAtzmaut event in Palo Alto. (File Photo)
Children sing at a 2014 Yom HaAtzmaut event in Palo Alto. (File Photo)

“For people paying attention, there is real concern about what’s going on in Israel,” he said. “Especially for older congregants, there is a real sense of dismay.”

Gladstone sees a disconnect between American Jews, a majority of whom surveys show identify as liberal and vote Democratic, and the sizable segment of Israeli voters who voted for Netanyahu’s Likud Party and other right-wing parties in November.

“There is an increasing number of Israelis whose worldview is illiberal and have voted accordingly,” Gladstone said. “They have elected politicians who reflect those viewpoints. We’re now in a situation where Netanyahu, who was head of many right-of-center governments, finds himself the most left-wing member of his government.”

Still, Gladstone remains cautiously optimistic about Israel’s ability to navigate the crisis.

“The protesters have really embraced Israeli patriotism in an interesting and productive way,” he said. “Because of that, there is some space for people to say: ‘Yeah, this is a version of Israel I can get behind. This is worth celebrating.’”

San Francisco Hillel is another partner for Israel@75. Roger Feigelson, the recently installed executive director, is glad his Hillel will take part. But based on conversations with Jewish students, he said that Israel’s judiciary crisis isn’t a top issue for them.

It’s a day to celebrate the best of what Israel has to offer.

“For a lot of the students, Israel is kind of a distant subject,” he said. “Part of our mission is to educate them on Israel. … I’m glad we can celebrate this.”

Jewish Silicon Valley, which comprises the Addison-Penzak JCC, the Jewish Community Relations Council and the former Jewish Federation of Silicon Valley, is also focused on celebration. In addition to its partnership in Israel@75, Jewish Silicon Valley is hosting its own event on April 25 at the Addison-Penzak JCC to mark both Yom HaZikaron (Israel Memorial Day) and Yom HaAtzmaut, with a Havdalah service in between.

Jessica Blitchok
Jessica Blitchok

Jessica Blitchok, director of the JCRC in Silicon Valley, plans to attend. She recently returned from Israel on a mission with the Bay Area Network of Jewish Officials (BANJO) and felt energized by the spirit of the hundreds of thousands of protesters. She sees them as a testament to Israel’s vibrant democracy.

“It was incredibly meaningful to be there with a group of Jewish elected officials, learning the diverse ways people express their Jewish identity,” she said. “JCRC believes any reforms of the judiciary should reflect a broad consensus of Israeli citizens, protect the rights of minorities and preserve equal application of the law.”

Other Bay Area Jewish institutions have plans to celebrate Yom HaAtzmaut too.

Reform Congregation Emanu-El in San Francisco will host an April 28 event with music and a catered dinner.

Berkeley’s Reform Congregation Beth El will host a catered dinner with Israeli cuisine on April 26, according to Ira Rosenberg, Beth El’s associate rabbi and director of congregational learning.

Rabbi Ira Rosenberg
Rabbi Ira Rosenberg

“It’s hard to keep the politics out of Israel in conversation,” Rosenberg said. “But for us, it’s … a day to celebrate the best of what Israel has to offer, and to come together at this moment in Jewish time.”

Rosenberg said that the momentous events in Israel have “energized in a powerful way” many Beth El congregants. If anything, his community is leaning in.

“They care deeply about what is happening in Israel,” he said, “and they continue to march forward, especially in regard to the democratic protests. Even before these events, we’ve had community members who care deeply about Israel in a variety of different ways and perspectives and who want to be in conversation with one another. We try hard to create a space for everybody, regardless of their own personal relationships with Israel.”

Israelis protest against the government’s planned judicial overhaul, outside the Supreme Court in Jerusalem, March 27, 2023. (Photo/JTA-Jamal Awad-Flash90)
Israelis protest against the government’s planned judicial overhaul, outside the Supreme Court in Jerusalem, March 27, 2023. (Photo/JTA-Jamal Awad-Flash90)

David Goodwin, president of Oakland’s Conservative Temple Beth Abraham, said his congregation will mark Yom HaAtzmaut during Shabbat services on April 29. He said he believes Beth Abraham as an institution strongly supports Israel, but added a note of caution.

“Not everyone [at Beth Abraham] agrees politically on everything,” Goodwin said, “but I have not heard anyone support what [Netanyahu] has done or is attempting to do with gutting the Israeli judiciary. And I doubt very many Americans are in favor of what he’s doing.”

The coalition that Netanyahu put together is quite extreme, even compared with his past governments, Goodwin said. If Netanyahu revives his judicial plan unaltered before Yom HaAtzmaut, which starts at sunset April 25, “that will be problematic. But if he acts more sensibly, people will want to celebrate.”

Goodwin said his synagogue will also present Yom HaAtzmaut programming for synagogue youth.

Teaching Israeli history is a staple of Jewish education, according to Vavi Toran, an Israeli-born arts and culture educator who lives in San Francisco. During her career developing curriculum for Jewish day schools through Jewish LearningWorks, she said, Yom HaAtzmaut was often the only time of the year when modern Israeli history was taught.

Israel Independence Day in San Francisco, 1973 (Photo/Saul Miller)
Israel Independence Day in San Francisco, 1973 (Photo/Saul Miller)

For her, Netanyahu’s actions have “absolutely tainted” Yom HaAtzmaut this year.

“I say that with a lot of pain,” noted Toran, who recently returned from a visit to Israel, where she took part in the massive street protests. “When we were marching together with the people, I was moved to tears. I said: My people have risen. They are not complacent or lazy or indifferent. They understand that this is an onslaught on the country’s soul and future.”

Vavi Toran
Vavi Toran

Yom HaAtzmaut will be “very tough” for her this year because of her conflicted feelings. But Toran still plans to celebrate in her own way. She will re-read Israel’s Declaration of Independence, which still stands as the country’s prime founding document.

Jacobs, who has organized the Israel@75 festival, maintains that the Jewish community should celebrate Israel’s survival and success over the past 75 years regardless of current circumstances.

“At all times it’s important to show who we are as a community,” she said. “And if we’re able to celebrate Israel and its culture together, it says a lot about the Bay Area Jewish community.”

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.