It was a splendid way—and a splendid day—for Jewish Pittsburgh to celebrate 65 years of Israeli independence.
The halls and courtyards of the Jewish Community Center of Greater Pittsburgh in Squirrel Hill were packed with children, teenagers and adults of all ages, enjoying each other’s company as well as a wide variety of activities and entertainment.
Nature even cooperated this year—a least for a few hours — bestowing sunny skies and temperatures reminiscent of spring in Jerusalem, a welcome treat for those who were outside enjoying the baby animals in the petting zoo or a free scoop of Rita’s Italian Ice.
Sponsored by the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh, Israel Fest drew community members from throughout the Greater Pittsburgh area.
“It’s always great to see the community come out and support Israel,” said Louis Plung, Federation chair. “And it’s great that Yom Haatzmaut follows Yom Hazikaron, because we go from looking inward, to this wonderful celebration. It’s great to see the community coming out to celebrate together.”
The evening kicked off with the singing of “The Star- Spangled Banner,” then “Hatikva,” lead by Leon Zionts. The national anthems were followed by a rousing performance by the Community Day School middle schoolers of Drum Olam, CDS’ percussion ensemble, under the direction of Eileen Freedman.
The Spirit of Israel Teen Delegation, from Pittsburgh’s Partnership2Gether region of Karmiel and Misgav, performed songs and dances in celebration of their 10th anniversary of visits to Pittsburgh, according to Julie Rosenbaum, coordinator of Israel Fest. The group of 10 Israeli high school students travels to Pittsburgh each year to participate in Yom Hazikaron and Yom Haatzmaut events.
Also featured was the Rimon Jazz Ensemble, a group of musicians from the Rimon School for Jazz and Contemporary Music in Ramat Hasharon, Israel.
More than 20 organizations set up booths throughout the JCC, distributing information and offering hands-on activities relating to Israel, including hamsa-making, cookie decorating and Israeli flag-making. There were balloon animals and face painting, games and a bounce house, enough to keep the younger set busy for hours.
“My favorite thing is the cookies,” said second-grader Dania Stewart, “because they were delicious.”
The second floor of the JCC was converted to a teen lounge, with booths representing several youth groups and Israel programs, live music, a send-off party for those traveling to the Jewish state in the coming months, and a headphone party.
“The headphone party is like a dance party, but instead of having a D.J., everyone is listening to music in headphones,” said Jasz Joseph, one of the Diller Teen Fellows who helped coordinate the teen programming. “They do this a lot in Israel.”
To appeal to the older, more sophisticated crowd, Israel Fest featured a lecture, delivered by master’s of business administration students from Pitt’s Katz Graduate School of Business, regarding business opportunities in Israel, followed by a tasting of Israeli wines.
Finally, there was the food.
Vendors Creative Kosher Catering, The Grill and Milky Way offered a huge variety of options, from meatball subs to pizza to falafel.
“That falafel smells good,” the Chronicle overhead a small boy named “Noah,” say to his mother.
But while an aroma of falafel did fill the air, Noah was pointing instead to mascot Tahini Talia (a.k.a. Reesa Rosenthal), who volunteered to roam the festival in full falafel garb.
“I volunteered through the Federation [to be a falafel],” she said. “We’re going soon on a volunteer mission to Karmiel Misgav. It will be our first time in Israel, so I thought I would volunteer.”
(Toby Tabachnick can be reached at email@example.com.)