Thousands attend Israel celebration on pretty perfect day

The skies over downtown San Francisco were overcast all day, but even the threat of a downpour couldn’t keep thousands from celebrating the Jewish state on June 5. Israel in the Gardens happens only once a year, after all, and who was going to let a little cloud cover spoil a party the Bay Area Jewish community had been anticipating since last summer?

The rain never came, but the people certainly did. From 11 a.m. to 5 p.m., as a full lineup of musicians and entertainers took the stage, partiers of all ages — infants to golden-agers — danced, picnicked, shopped and shmoozed throughout Yerba Buena Gardens. Organizers estimated the attendence at 20,000.

Thousands attended Israel in the Gardens, despite rain predictions. photos/chris stevens

David Spieler, 70, of Berkeley, relaxed near the stage with his dog Kee Kee, taking in a performance by local Israeli-born musician Ziva Hadar. He said he’s been coming to Israel in the Gardens for at least two decades — and he was wearing a 20-year-old shirt from Israel’s 43rd birthday celebration to prove it.

“There are so many friends I get to see, people I might not run into otherwise,” he said. “I don’t make it into the city as much as I used to. It’s nice that this really brings people out from all over.”

At booths circling the main lawn, organizations and vendors sought to entertain and educate.

Ilana Schatz, the founding director of Fair Trade Judaica, was delighted — and at times deluged — by the interest in the wares she had brought to sell, including kosher chocolate, wall hangings and colorful kippahs made from recycled soda cans by artisans in Nepal, South Africa, India and more.

“It’s such a wonderful opportunity to just talk to people,” she said between customers. “I get the chance to explain to people one-on-one how fair trade works, what it means to support [these artists] … and you just see a light bulb turn on over their heads, like ‘Oh!’ ”

Donny Inbar of the Israel Center addresses the crowd from the stage.

In the Kids and Family Zone, children played with hula hoops, made beaded jewelry and joined in an African drum circle. Tucked into a corner of the gardens, the Kids Zone provided a peaceful break from the party atmosphere on the main lawn — and even attracted some visitors who hadn’t planned on attending.

“We were just at the MOMA across the street, heard the music and decided to head over after,” said Emily Baldwin, who was making a beaded lanyard with her 3-year-old son, Jonah. “So far the day has been pretty perfect.”

Rabbi Ruth Abusch-Magder was on hand to spread the word about Be’chol Lashon, which sponsored the Kids and Family Zone. She and her 10-year-old daughter, Aliza, are new to the Bay Area — and were excited to attend their first Israel in the Gardens.

“Part of what we got to celebrate today is that Jewish education can truly be fun,” she said, gesturing toward the cheerful  crowd. “It’s a tribute to this community, really, that something like this comes together every year. And especially in San Francisco, I think it’s nice to see firsthand, just by looking around, how our Jewish community here represents the diversity that we’re seeking globally.”

Michal Kohane, director of the Israel Center — which produced the event, along with the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation — said she was happy beyond belief that the day came together “against all odds.”

“We were setting it up in the rain [Saturday], and we just kept saying ‘rain or shine,’ ” she said. “And then, the day of — no rain, only shine! It was great to see how many people came out regardless, how important standing with Israel is to so many people.”

Throughout the gardens, people noshed on falafel, bagels and lox and Israeli salads; others brought their own spreads and settled on blankets on the lawn. On the main stage, S.F. Supervisor David Chiu spoke out against the city’s proposed circumcision ban, while Israeli Consul General Akiva Tor wished out loud for a time when “intense security at an event like this won’t be necessary.”

Security was indeed a noticeable presence at the gardens’ entrance, with hand-held metal detectors and bag searches ensuring the event was safe. Just past the gate, about 20 protesters held signs reading “Free Palestine,” shouted anti-Israel slogans and floated red, yellow and black balloons. They were gone by about 3 p.m. — replaced, curiously enough, by a Nesquik truck giving out free chocolate milk.

It was around that time that the crowd swelled noticeably as new partiers arrived and gravitated toward the stage for the day’s headliner, Knessiyat HaSekhel (Church of Reason). The Israeli rock band’s raucous sound was softened by the backing of local classical orchestra Magik*Magik.

As the music reverberated through the crowd, Israel Scouts Gal Maron and Roey Vald, both 17, were seated at the Tzofim Chetz V’Keshet booth, taking it all in. San Francisco was the third stop on the Tzofim Friendship Caravan’s whirlwind three-month U.S. tour, and the two said they hadn’t expected an event of this magnitude.

“The trip has been great,” Vald said, “and we’re looking forward to New York. But I don’t really think it’s going to be better than this.”

Nearby, two clusters of friends waited in line for henna tattoos — one a group of women in their 70s, another of elementary school–age girls.

“There’s a camaraderie about it,” said Betty Weinberg, 76, who came from the Peninsula with her friends for the day. “It’s about being with people — young people, old people, everyone — whether you know them or not.”

“And, hey,” she added, as her friend stepped up to take her turn with the henna artist, “it didn’t rain!”