In an evening filled with playing, learning and, of course, eating, the Pittsburgh Jewish community joined together in full strength on May 6 to celebrate Israel’s 66 years of independence.
The free Yom Ha’atzmaut festival, iFest, was sponsored by the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh. This was the first time the annual event was held at the Carnegie Science Center, and it brought together Jews from throughout Pittsburgh and its surrounding suburbs. Representatives from many of the city’s communal organizations and several area congregations staffed booths and exhibits, all in celebration of the Jewish state.
“It’s nice to see all the Jewish organizations together under one roof,” said Stacey Reibach of Mount Lebanon. “It’s nice to run into everybody.”
With its focus this year on Israel’s technological innovations, the Science Center proved an ideal venue to celebrate Yom Ha’atzmaut.
“We wanted to try something new and exciting this year,” said Jan Levinson, iFest committee chair. “We think there are a lot of interesting attractions here at the Science Center that go hand in hand with the science-related features that we brought today.”
Children and adults listened to a robotics presentation by award-winning high school students from the Misgav region in Israel — Pittsburgh’s partner in its Partership2Gether program — then wandered upstairs to the Science Center’s “roboworld” to interact with one of the world’s largest permanent robotics exhibitions.
Other science-related features at iFest included a presentation on the latest developments in concussion evaluation and research by Dr. Anthony Kontos of the UPMC Sports Medicine Concussion Program, who is working in collaboration with the Israeli company ElMindA. And Israeli interns at the University of Pittsburgh’s Swanson School of Engineering delivered a presentation on orthopedic and tissue-engineering research.
The evening had something for everyone. For the children, there were arts and crafts stations, face painting and balloon animals. Families could view the panoramic film “Jerusalem” in the IMAX theater upstairs and learn Israeli dance. Young adults enjoyed a tasting of Israeli wines on the terrace. And the Israeli jazz ensemble Seeds of Sun, which has performed at the Kennedy Center, played both Israeli jazz and world music on the lawn.
“We tried to step up our game this year,” Levinson said.
The iFest committee secured 900 parking spaces at the Science Center and also arranged for buses to bring guests from locations around the city, including Community Day School and Temple David in Monroeville.
While the kosher food available downstairs included hot dogs, vegan burgers and cotton candy, the only falafel to be found was Michael Roteman in a falafel costume greeting guests.
For some diners, that was not good enough.
“There’s no falafel, and there’s no shawarma,” complained a group from the South Hills that asked not to be identified. “What’s up with that?”
Yom Ha’atzmaut came on the heels of Yom Hazikaron, the day during which Israel remembers its fallen soldiers and those who have died as victims of terror. Just two days before iFest, Pittsburghers gathered at the Jewish Community Center in Squirrel Hill for a service that included readings in Hebrew and English and a candle-lighting ceremony in which people remembered family members who had been killed serving Israel or who were murdered by terrorists.
Although the halls of the Science Center were filled with laughter and conversation, the significance of the day was not lost on attendees. Law school student Noah Simmons, 24, who took a break from his studies to celebrate Israel, summed up what he felt to be the event’s primary focus: “Yom Ha’atzmaut is a special time to appreciate and to realize how lucky we are to have a Jewish state to return home to.”
(Toby Tabachnick can be reached at email@example.com.)