Israel in the Gardens is critical to our community

Israel in the Gardens, the popular Jewish community celebration that usually takes place the first Sunday in June in San Francisco’s Yerba Buena Gardens, will not be held this year.

As our story on page 3 explains, the leadership of the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation, which has put on the event in its present form since 1999, announced last week that the celebration would go on hiatus this year while staff “rethinks and re-imagines” it.

This is a big loss for the Bay Area Jewish community.

Israel in the Gardens has always been widely attended — 15,000 people showed up last year to enjoy live music, shmooze with their friends, buy Judaica, learn about the many services offered by local Jewish agencies, and groove on the good vibes that enlivened the day. The event serves an important communal function as well, providing a non-politicized space where AIPAC can coexist with J Street, where Chabad can put up its booth next to the LGBT outreach agency A Wider Bridge.

Coming so soon after the final curtain for downtown Palo Alto’s “To Life! A Jewish Cultural Street Festival,” which ended after 2010, the absence of Israel in the Gardens this year will be deeply felt.

Federation officials are assuring us that the festival will return, that the hiatus does not indicate anything beyond what they say it means: They need a year off to decide the best way to celebrate Israel and the Jewish community in future.

OK. We’ll take them at their word. Certainly the logistics of putting on this massive festival are daunting, rendered more difficult this year because the federation has a new (interim) CEO stepping into Jennifer Gorovitz’s shoes after March 31, and it has not replaced Michal Kohane, the former director of the federation’s Israel Center, which shoulders most of the burden of organizing the day.

The federation is not completely dropping the ball. Instead of Israel in the Gardens, it plans to hold some kind of celebration, possibly on May 6, the actual date of Israel Independence Day. Details are still sketchy, but the event should take place midday at a public plaza in San Francisco.

This is a good thing. Sure, it won’t be as big as Israel in the Gardens, and for now, it’s taking place on a Tuesday instead of a Sunday, but it’s something.

This alternate celebration opens up an interesting possibility, one we support: Why not move the festival permanently to a Sunday close to Israel Independence Day? That’s when it used to be held, most recently in 2001. This makes perfect sense to us.

We look forward to enjoying Israel in the Gardens —wherever and whatever it is — in 2015.