The event space at Valley Forge Casino Resort became an explosion of love for Israel and Judaism on May 6 as the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia celebrated Israel’s 70th birthday with a blowout bash, “5-6-70 Israel!”
Kids ran around with balloons and painted faces, waving mini Israeli flags they picked up from one of the myriad booths set up in the space, all of which represented agencies, synagogues, organizations and services serving the Jewish community in Philadelphia and beyond.
Attendees — of which there were 2,400 pre-registered with many more showing up throughout the event’s five hours — could buy menorahs and clothing from vendors, or participate in activities at various booths, like StandWithUs’ “I Love Israel Because…” poster board or write a word that represents inclusion (such as “love,” or “community” or “equality”) and thread it through a string harp-like fixture with Jewish Family and Children’s Service.
There were even celebrity appearances from the likes of Gal Gadot and Gene Simmons — sort of. Cardboard cutouts stood in for the actual celebrities in an area designated to celebrating Israeli athletes, actors and musicians. They were joined by a hall of fame area with stands featuring former prime ministers and government officials.
A selfie booth offered potential future political hopefuls a chance to advertise themselves as Israel’s next prime minister.
Lila Strausberg, 10, erupted in giggles when asked if she planned on being the next one to assume the Israeli government position after she took a photo in the cutout.
She was there with sister Sarah, 12, and mother Renee, who brought them to the event with the enticement of being in a place that was all about being Jewish and celebrating Israel.
“I want them to be proud of being Jewish and their heritage,” she said, adding that as they live in Collegeville, they’re not in a particularly Jewish area. An event like this instilled in them a pride for Israel.
The girls particularly enjoyed the Negev tent, in which guests could surround themselves with the sights and smells of the Israeli desert region by making their own Havdalah kits and watching short films about the area along with other sensory-engaging activities.
Strausberg noted that having the event take place outside of the city as opposed to locations in past years allowed everyone to come and “there’s no real barrier.”
Plus, the food was good, Sarah enthused.
A food court along the wall featured booths from Jake’s Kosher Smoked Meat, Star of David Kosher Grill, Nana’s Kitchen and Moustaki Authentic Gyros, plus others, in addition to stands from Rita’s Italian Ice and everyone’s two favorite Jews: Ben and Jerry. Guests could nosh on kid-friendly fare like hot dogs and pizza, as well as classic Israeli staples.
While eating, background music from choirs and music groups filled the room with the sounds of “Shalom Aleichem” and a rousing “Hava Nagila” courtesy of the Quaker City String Band, who showed up clad in sequined, shimmering outfits.
When kids weren’t too busy getting their faces painted, they could go play Gaga or enjoy a show on the children’s stage.
The adults in the room had plenty of opportunities for fun, too. There were live cooking demonstrations, and wine and olive oil tastings in addition to shopping for jewelry at several vendor booths — which Rebecca Segal and Dorit Baruch were certainly looking forward to.
The two, who teach Hebrew to preschool and religious school students at Kesher Israel Congregation in West Chester, came to the event to celebrate Israel and were excited to enjoy the food and shop for jewelry.
For Baruch, who moved here from near Tel Aviv 13 years ago, events like this are particularly meaningful.
“It’s special, not like another year — it’s 70,” she said. “With all the achievements and all the struggles and everything, it’s special.”
Some attendees were just excited to show their pride for the Jewish state and be with the rest of the community.
“We’re just trying to show the rest of the area that we are here and we still want Israel to be around for the next 70 years,” Simone Woodwell said. “To take pride in what the State of Israel has done for the last 70 years and how hard they’ve fought to stay alive.”
Israel created an emotional reaction for many, including Brenda Evans, who has visited the country four times and came to the event with her husband, Arthur.
“Israel is one of the few countries I would ever go back to repeatedly,” she said. “It’s the responsibility of every American Jew to visit Israel at least once.”
She cited Israel’s contributions at the forefront of medicine, technology and science among its many accomplishments.
“I’m ready to go back any time,” she enthused.
Exhibits highlighting Israel’s accomplishments were set up around the space, where screens projected images of the country’s landscape and markets, and another also explored how Israel cares for its oceans and marine life.
For those in charge, some of whom got there at 6:45 a.m. to help set up while the crew started at 8 p.m. the previous night, the day was certainly a success.
“I have to say, all different parts of the community coming together feels the best,” Jewish Federation President and CEO Naomi Adler reflected a few hours into the event. “I love the music and the food, but the most important is how many different people have come through already.”
She most enjoyed seeing how many people came from all over the community, which was why she was also excited they were able to hold the event outside of city limits.
She was grateful for the volunteers and Jewish Federation staff who put the effort into the event and “pulled out every stop” to make it happen. For attendees, she hoped they were able to not only celebrate Israel and enjoy the food and music and general hoopla, but learn something new.
“That was our goal — it’s not just the celebration, it’s the real education moment,” she said.
Addie Lewis Klein, director of community engagement for the Jewish Federation, likened the event to a family reunion for the Philadelphia Jewish community.
“I was delighted to see the diversity of the Jewish community that showed up for the event,” she said. “I saw all ages, all parts of our five-county region, lots of wheelchairs, I saw lots of Israelis and other immigrants.
“It just really showcased the diversity of the Philadelphia Jewish community.”
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