1,000 celebrate Israels 51st birthday in Walnut Creek

Since it would have been virtually impossible to outdo last year's 50th Israel Independence Day fest, organizers decided to take a slightly different tack this year.

The idea for the 1999 festivities, according to the chief organizer Riva Gambert, was to make it a more family-oriented affair in order "to bring Israel to the newest generation."

Sunday's celebration at the Contra Costa Jewish Community Center in Walnut Creek did just that with highlights such a tai chi classes taught by a Jerusalemite, demonstrations with an Israeli rescue dog named Billy and a crawling maze for children to teach what Israeli cities look like.

"You can't top the 50th anniversary. So this year we've tried to target families who maybe have not been to Israel — to whom Israel is a political word, the other half of the Arab-Israeli conflict — to try to show them the types of things you'd see if you wandered around Israel and to reach out to young kids," said Gambert, director of education and culture for the Israel Center of the Jewish Federation of the Greater East Bay.

The federation and the CCJCC co-sponsored "The Israel-in-a-Day-Fair," which drew about 1,000 visitors.

Among the blue, white and gold balloons and oodles of Israeli posters were tables of books about the country, CDs of Israeli and Jewish music, as well as jewelry, art, clothing, chachkas and information on everything from Jewish retirement homes to volunteering with the Israeli army.

Susie Ahari of Pleasant Hill, who came with her 4-year-old daughter, Michaela, called the event "great." David Broadsly, his daughter Eve and her friend Nicole Sherman, on a field trip with the fourth-grade class from Temple Sinai of Oakland, agreed. Even though they found the cool, cloudy weather somewhat uncooperative, he said they were still determined to go on "having fun."

Rabbi Yehuda Ferris of Chabad in Berkeley enjoyed the event as well.

"I love Jews. I love to be with Jews. This is a rabbi's orgy. I've put tefillin on so many people…it's been wonderful."

On the front lawn, Israel Center director Nitzan Aviv demonstrated the techniques used by Israel's search and rescue dogs with his 8-year-old golden retriever-Lab mix, Billy, who recently retired after six years of service in Israel.

The entertainment highlighted two local bands — Dakva, which performed Middle Eastern Jewish music, and Za'atar, which plays music of the Jews from Arab and Muslim countries.

"We're from the Middle East Bay," quipped band member Ron Elkayam of Berkeley.

Other performances included "Side by Side: Music with a Jewish Soul," a group of Jewish mothers and grandmothers who perform their original Jewish music, and "Family Reunion," an audience-participation piece of Jewish theater by Rina Padwa, an Israeli woman who wants to "provoke thoughts about Jewish identity and each Jewish person's place on the continuum of Jewish history."

A belly dancer, the Contra Costa Children's Choir, and lectures on Kabbalah, Israeli archaelogical finds and the Israeli-Arab conflict rounded out the day.