Despite the dark clouds looming overhead, the University’s Amphitheatre shined bright with color and patriotism as the smell of fresh food and the sounds of laughter and cheer filled the air. In celebration of the State of Israel’s 71st birthday, Hoos for Israel and the Hillel Jewish Leadership Council united to host the third annual IsraelFest. Roughly 300 students and community members met at the Amphitheatre Friday from 1 p.m. to 3 p.m. to experience Israeli culture, food, music and art.
Independence Day is observed across the globe, but the height of its spirit peaks in Israel itself, of course. Founded upon the establishment of the State of Israel in May 1948 — following the signing of a Declaration of Independence in Tel Aviv — it represents a historical and cultural day of paramount importance in Jewish culture.
Wittney Skigen, fourth-year College student and vice chair of the Hillel Jewish Leadership Council, discussed the significance of the holiday.
“Israel’s Independence Day, Yom Ha’Atzmaut, is coming up next month, but it won’t take place until during finals, so IsraelFest is a little early this year,” Skigen said. “We really just want to celebrate Israeli culture and invite people to see some of the non-political aspects of Israel.”
JLC and Hoos for Israel worked to create an environment for not only Jewish and Israeli students, but for all members of Charlottesville and the University to join together for a day of Israeli festivity and fun.
Sophie Dornfeld, second-year Nursing student, JLC’s second-year class representative and member of the Hoos for Israel IsraelFest planning committee, discussed the event’s mission.
“Our goal was to unite U.Va. students to share the many reasons we love Israel and how despite the complexities surrounding Israel and Israel’s downfalls, there is still so much to love and be proud of,” Dornfeld said. “We wanted to show how Israel is more than just the conflict and to share the numerous facets that contribute to Israeli culture and society.”
While IsraelFest signified the climax of commemoration for Israeli and Jewish students at the University, it was actually the concluding event of a week-long celebration presented by JLC and Hoos for Israel. Preceding events included a hummus bar, a dialogue from Michael Elroy — a member of the LGBTQ community in Israel — and a Zumba class featuring Israeli music.
“The event was the culmination of our IsraelWeek festivities,” Skigen said. “IsraelFest always falls on the last day of IsraelWeek and is the product of the hype and buildup over the course of the week. This holiday is a very joyful time in Israel and falls right after HaZikaron and Yom HaShoah, or Memorial Day and Holocaust Remembrance Day.”
Independence Day is a special hallmark of Israeli history and holds sincere purpose in boosting morale and instilling pride in the nation’s admirers.
“Independence Day is meant to represent the Israeli mentality of transitioning from a day of mourning victims of terror and fallen soldiers to celebrating the existence of Israel,” Dornfeld said.
Third-year Batten student and JLC third year-class representative and Hoos for Israel Treasurer Zack Szlezinger elaborated on the lively nature of Israel’s Independence Day.
“A typical celebration usually involved food, music and partying! However, any celebration is great!” Szlezinger said in an email to The Cavalier Daily.
This particular festival featured free food from Basil and Sticks, snow cones and many other treats. The event included unique culinary delicacies with Veggies of Virginia preparing traditional Israeli foods and Natalia Zhiltsova, a second-year College Russian student representative preparing a delicious classical Russian dish.
“We had a Russian student cook traditional Russian cuisine and talk about the Russian minorities in Israel, which is one of the largest immigrant groups in Israel,” Dornfeld said. “We also had Veggies of Virginia set up a make-your-own tabbouleh bar and talk about how Israel is a global leader in sustainability.”
Traditional Israeli snacks were served like “Bamba” and “Bisselli” –– which Szlezinger described as similar to Cheetos and Doritos, respectively –– as well as classic favorites like falafel, pita, hummus, shawarma, freshly squeezed juice and Baba Ganoush, a mashed eggplant and olive oil dish.
Introducing the community to the delicious world of Israeli cuisine was not the only way the hosts honored Israeli culture. In effort to bring Israel to the University, the hosts created a traditional “Shuk” marketplace in the Amphitheatre. A Shuk is an open-air market where Israeli citizens purchase produce and goods, yet it also serves as a gathering place. The transformed Amphitheatre offered a similar experience for students to explore.
While the event was crafted to honor the Israeli holiday, students of varying descents and heritages were encouraged to join in solidarity to observe the tradition together.
“I’m not Israeli. I’m a Jewish student, which is a crucial distinction to make,” Dornfeld said. “I feel a strong personal connection to Israel and feel like it is my home away from home. Being a Jewish student means that I am part of a rich culture and vibrant history that spans thousands of years and embodies numerous traditions.”
It did rain during the event, but the hosts defied the stormy weather to ensure their vision for IsraelFest came to life.
“Even though it was raining, people still came out to have a good time and celebrate Israeli culture,” Szlezinger said. “[The rain] made [the event] a bit smaller, but it still had the effect that we were aiming for.”
Even though the rain prevented plans for a bouncy slide and a snow cone machine, the organizations persevered and welcomed the chance to make IsraelFest more intimate. All of the tents were combined, and diverse groups of people interacted in close proximity to take part of the festivities.
“My favorite part of the event was the diversity in the people who attended,” Dornfeld said. “Seeing how many people from different backgrounds were in attendance really exemplified to me how vast support for Israel is and how celebrating Israeli culture can be so lighthearted and fun.”
IsraelFest symbolized an event in which individuals across the community united to enrich their knowledge of Israel’s history. Rain or shine, JLC and Hoos for Israel sculpted an event centered around promoting and demonstrating the fun-filled, delicious and diverse culture of Israel. IsraelFest fostered an environment of learning and sharing as it drew from the colorful, jubilant essence of Israeli’s complex heritage.
“Despite the complexities surrounding Israel, there is still so much to love and be proud of, and there is always something new to learn or another narrative to understand,” Dornfeld said.