An article in the May 6, 1949 Jewish Exponent noted that it was attended by Jewish leaders such as Samuel Daroff, who headed what is now the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia, and Joseph Proskauer, honorary president of the American Jewish Committee. Proskauer told the event participants: "We have learned that David could slay Goliath."
Far different than that first small celebration is this year's at Eakins Oval and the Benjamin Franklin Parkway, from 4 p.m. to 9 p.m. on Sunday, May 21. Between its opening ceremony featuring the sound of 58 shofars to its fireworks ending, "Israel in Our Hearts" is open to the entire community, which can enjoy Israeli music, food and shopping. The celebration is funded by the Federation's Center for Israel and Overseas.
"This is a day to bring the community together for a common purpose, and for us to show our support for Israel," said Beryl Simonson, Federation board chair. "Enjoy it with your family and friends. The upcoming celebration has a whole new enthusiasm and participation, which we will continue to build on."
The 25th anniversary of Israel's Independence Day was marked by a parade that wound its way from the Parkway to Independence Mall, and ended up at Independence Hall to hear speeches from Simcha Dinitz, Israel's ambassador to the United States, Philadelphia Mayor Frank Rizzo and Pennsylvania Gov. Milton Shapp.
The parades that continued into the 1970s and '80s "gave various organizations the opportunity to display their love of Israel and march with pride," said Burt Siegel, director of Federation's Jewish Community Relations Council."We invited the non-Jewish community, including elected officials, to participate so we could say to the Jewish community: 'All these people care'; and to the politicians: 'See how important Israel is to the Jewish community.'
"Gradually, the focus of the celebration became Israeli fairs," he continued. "More children attended, and there was more entertainment and food, along with a feeling of unity with everyone singing Hatikvah and families wearing synagogue T-shirts."
Oxford Circle Jewish Community Center in Northeast Philadelphia was one of the synagogues. Rabbi Harold Romirowsky, rabbi emeritus of the now closed synagogue, recalled that "after Pesach, school kids geared up for the Israel Independence Day parade. Our Men's Club made floats."
So important were the parades and fairs that Romirowsky, who conducted conversion classes for 26 years, required his students to attend "to be part of the community's love of Israel."
Greater Philadelphia's local 50th Israel Independence Day Celebration featured Peter Nero and the Philly Pops in a concert of Israeli and Jewish music at Penn's Landing, and a reading of Israel's Declaration of Independence by a family member of one of the signers. There was also a family fun fair.
Now in 2006, with the Center for Israel and Overseas directing the events, the celebration's goal is to "immerse participants in Israeli culture," stated Jeri Zimmerman, the center's director. "It's not just a matter of observing, but connecting to Israel at a celebration very similar to the ones they hold there."
Corporate sponsors for "Israel in Our Hearts" include ShopRite, Blank Rome LLP, Boscov's, the Fairmount Park Commission, the Consulate General of Israel in Philadelphia, the Jewish Exponent and Fox Rothschild.
The festival is free, but participants must register. To do so, volunteer or sign up for bus transportation, call 215-832-0630, or visit: www.JewishPhilly.org . The first 500 to sign up will receive a gift.