When members of the Avalon String Band start strumming and strutting their stuff to kick off the festivities for Israel 66, it will mark one of the very few times that the community-wide celebration of Israel’s independence will feature an institution older than the modern Jewish state itself.
The venerable group of “Two Street” Mummers has been performing since 1938, a full decade before Israel declared its independence.
The event, which is organized by the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia’s Center for Israel and Overseas, has evolved from a small gathering held in a ballroom at the old Broadwood Hotel at Broad and Wood streets in 1949, into a key opportunity for local Jews to show their support for and connection to Israel.
According to Jeri Zimmerman, the director of the center, this distinctly American celebration — this year, Yom Ha’atzmaut actually fell on May 6 — is one way to focus on Jewish identity and to bring American Jews closer to the Jewish state through its unique culture.
“It’s about continuity,” she said. Bringing people to Israel through programs like Birthright and Israel 360, which takes 27- to 35-year-olds to Israel on a heavily subsidized trip, or bringing Israel here through events like Israel 66, are all crucial tools for saving and strengthening that link.
Zimmerman adds that this is especially true for the under-40 demographic, as evidenced most dramatically by the Pew Research Center’s 2013 “Portrait of Jewish Americans” and the 2009 Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia’s population study, which found that respondents, especially those aged 40 and younger identify less and less with Israel. Hence, an event that brings together thousands of community members for the express purpose of celebrating the birth of the Jewish state can be a crucial show of support and solidarity.
Center programs like the Israeli Film Festival and the Israeli JazzPhest also provide opportunities for local Jews to explore their bond to the Jewish state. In fact, it was at JazzPhest in November that organizers of the Independence Day celebration first heard Ayala Ingedashet , the first Ethiopian-born Israeli to land a major record deal, and quickly decided to bring the modern soul-influenced vocalist back to Philadelphia for Israel 66.
In addition to Ingedashet, those who join in the celebrations at Penn’s Landing on May 18 will be treated to performances from headliner David Broza , as well as Germantown Jewish Centre’s Maleveh Malka Band and Tribal Clefs, a Philadelphia-based a cappella group.
One area where the festival has expanded is by including more offerings for children to inculcate the youngest attendees with a love of Israel.
In an effort to figure out how to best configure the annual Israel celebration, Federation staffers hosted community meetings following last year’s event. “We learned that we really needed more things for young families to do,” explained Beth Razin, who manages Holocaust and Israel-related programming for the Federation.
As a result, Israel 66 will feature the Lag B’Omer Fun Zone, located in the Walnut East parking lot that once hosted previous festivals’ Taste of Israel and Taste of Shabbat exhibits. Playing off of the festive nature of the holiday, which falls on the same day as the event, there will be activities like GaGa courts, arts and crafts, Israel Scouts rope games and more.
For parents and other adults, in addition to dozens of vendors sprawled across the waterfront, there will be more than three dozen agencies in attendance, from longtime participants like Israel Bonds, the Anti-Defamation League and summer camps to newcomers like media watchdog CAMERA and StandWithUs, which is dedicated to helping people show their support for Israel.
For Ferne Hassan, the associate director of the group’s Philadelphia office, which opened in late 2013, being part of a celebration of Israel dovetailed nicely with her group’s raison d’etre.
“I have attended this event over the years as an individual,” Hassan said, “and I knew we had to participate. There are just not enough opportunities to get information about Israel in a way that is user-friendly, not think-tank-heavy.”
She views the celebration as an opportunity to reach people — especially college students and young adults — to let them know about the various educational opportunities the group offers.
“It’s all based on education — speakers, seminars, conferences — to get people the facts and work with our team of people so they will have the wherewithal to stand up and speak out for Israel.”
Hassan’s mission is a microcosm of what makes Israel 66, like its predecessors, much more than a way to spend a few hours on a Sunday afternoon.
“Coming together around Israel gives everyone a sense of community,” Razin said. “It is a great opportunity to showcase our culture by bringing in Israeli performers who should be known here.”
Broza and Ingedashet both echo the importance of having visible, public expressions of Israelophilia.
Broza, who will visit Philadelphia again just 11 days after the event to sing the national anthem at the Phillies’ Jewish Heritage Night on May 29, understands that his role is not just to entertain but also to provide a bridge between nations and people.
“Communities have always wanted to celebrate Israel,” he said in an interview, “but I think we are in a new age for Israel and the Jews of the Diaspora. There is now such a strong identity for Israeli culture — some of our finest musicians, artists and technology are spread all over the world — that communities can connect to Israel through something so unique and beautiful and with mass appeal.”
For her part, Ingedashet understands that appearing at Israel 66 is about more than simply introducing herself and her music to a new audience.
“It is not just my own Independence Day,” she said. “It is the Independence Day of all Jewish people around the world — it doesn’t matter where they live. If Israel ceases to exist, there will be a big, empty space — a vacuum — for all of us.”
ISRAEL 66 BY THE NUMBERS
1949: first time that Yom Ha’atzmaut was commemorated in Philadelphia
5,000: expected attendees
100,000: estimated dollars spent on this year’s event
39: nonprofit agencies that will have booths set up
26: vendors selling everything from metal arts to tahini
4: food stands
72: expected high temperature for May 18 (and partly cloudy)
IF YOU GO
May 18 from 12 to 5 p.m.
Penn’s Landing, Philadelphia