It turns out that the biggest Israeli community around the globe (outside of Israel itself) has been centered in Hollywood under the famous sign for the past 40 years. Some 300,000 Israelis have settled in LA, but this varied collection of citizens who left the Jewish State were never a true community until nine years ago. It was only with the outbreak of the Second Lebanon War that everything changed.
"When the war broke out in the north and anti-Israeli protests erupted around the world, the Israeli consul in Los Angeles tried to organize a pro-Israel protest. Five thousand people came to the demonstration, most of them Jewish Americans," said Danny Alpert from the Israeli-American Council (IAC) in LA.
"The ambassador couldn't understand how there was no organization in the city with the largest Israeli community in the world, so he contacted several influential Israelis in the city... and gave them the mission to do something for the Israeli community. The rest is history."
The huge festival that took place in LA - Celebrate Israel - is only a small pillar among the actions of the IAC in the Israeli community, but a pillar that has spread from sea to shining sea. Celebrate Israel took place for this first time this year in five different locations across the US during the month of May, including Miami, Las Vegas, New York, and Boston.
The events draw thousands of Israeli from across the US and bring some of Israel's biggest musicians for performances including Rita, Shlomi Shabat, Ethnix, and others. This year in LA, the celebration took place on Jerusalem Day, and Israeli families wandered between giant displays like the Western Wall tunnels, Jerusalem's Mahane Yehuda market, and more. Fresh watermelon and hot dogs were served at the festival.
Sagi Balasha, Director of the IAC, said that, "The festivals provided the opportunity of celebrating Israel to tens of thousands of participants from sea to sea for an entire day that presents the pretty and the good in Israel. These festivals will help harness the Israeli-American and Jewish community for pro-Israeli activism that's necessary today, more than in the past, in light of growing anti-Semitism and attempts to de-legitimize Israel in the United States and around the world."
All the IAC's projects are funded through donations from Israelis and Jews across the US. Shawn Evenhaim, a former officer, is a real estate mogul today and one of the richest Israelis in Los Angeles. He first arrived in the US to make some money and go back to Israel, but ended up staying for many years.
"You leave and create a life here, but you remain connected to Israel. You have debts but you have no rights," said Evenhaim. "We have three main goals: overwhelming support for the State of Israel, to care for the next generation of Israelis that was raised here, to preserve the Jewish-ness and Israeli-ness within them, and to strengthen and build connections with the Jewish community. This is all with the understanding that the Israeli community here is strategic property for the State of Israel."
There are almost no Israelis in Los Angeles and the rest of the US who didn't leave behind members of their extended family in Israel. Most visit Israel around once a year, depending on their financial situations.
"I've been here for so many years and I still feel a little guilt," said Miri Shefer, board member and Director of IAC's Los Angeles branch. "Israel is our umbilical cord. Our bodies are here, but our souls are in Israel. Once we didn't have any community connections, but today we are a strong group. We have a plan that's called 'Tzav 8' (the order received by Israeli reserve soldiers when called to war) and people here are recruited for actions advocating for Israel."
Nati Saydof, board member and one of the founders of the Independence festivals, started working in the 70s as a bus boy in Queens. The owners of the restaurant let him sleep on the floor. Today, Saydof owns a company that works in bonds. "The uniqueness of Israel is in human relations; there is a sense of responsibility to others, people who ate the same sting," said Saydof. "All of these concepts don't exist in the US.
"For years this was really missing for me. Many times, our actions are what connects the community to Israel. The Jewish-American community is totally different than the Israeli one and so it's important to unite them. Former Israelis, Jewish-Americans, religious Jews, secular Jews, everyone comes to our festival. The goal of the festival is to preserve the burning embers, bring back the Israel-Israeli experience to an entire generation that was mostly raised here."
Adam Milstein, a businessman and IAC board member, opened Sifriyat Pijama in America a few years ago, sending books in Hebrew to Israeli families for free.
"One of the problems here is assimilation and it's important to us to preserve the Israeli identity on a cultural level and so that our children and grandchildren will speak in Hebrew, return to Israel and serve in the IDF. There is anti-Israel propaganda here on a large scale and we have a historical mission to connect Israelis to the community with a variety of actions that we take from age zero to 90, to serve as ambassadors of Israel and to give the country strong backing here in the US.
"Today, when there boycotts everywhere, when there is de-legitimization on campuses and in schools, we can be the spearhead to help the country. We may be here, but only half. I've been here almost 40 years, but when I get up in the morning I open Ynet."