Israel’s Gilat Rapaport and the InJoy Band headline this year’s Yom Ha’atzmaut celebration on May 4 at the Vogue Theatre. (photo from injoyprod.com)
This year’s Yom Ha’atzmaut celebration on May 4 at the Vogue Theatre, headlined by Israel’s Gilat Rapaport and the InJoy Band, marks 20 years since the first large-scale community-wide event to celebrate Israel’s Independence Day was organized by the Jewish Federation of Greater Vancouver.
“Growing up in Vancouver, the community had occasional large Yom Ha’atzmaut events with Israeli performers and I have wonderful memories of attending them,” said Stephen Gaerber, who co-chaired that first major gathering. “I was incredibly impressed by a large event held to celebrate Israel’s 50th in 1998 at the Orpheum [which was chaired by Judy Mandleman]. It was 2001, the Second Intifada was raging, Camp David had resulted in failure and Israel was, as usual, being disparaged in the press. My friend, Rick Schreiber, had become the chair of the Federation’s Israel department, and I told him that I thought the community should be having large-scale events every year to celebrate Yom Ha’atzmaut and all that is wonderful about Israel. His response was, ‘OK, you chair it.’ That’s how I became chair for the 2002 Yom Ha’atzmaut celebration, first co-chairing with my wife, Shari, and then, starting in 2003, with my brother Allen.”
Of course, local groups celebrated Israel’s birthday in various ways prior to 2002, notably the now-defunct Canadian Zionist Federation (CZF). Bernard Pinsky was CZF chair in the late 1980s.
“In the 1980s,” said Pinsky, “CZF brought in big names from Israel for a Yom Ha’atzmaut concert, including top artists like Nomi Shemer, Chava Alberstein, and Haparvarim. The concert was held at the JCC and wasn’t always right on Yom Ha’atzmaut, it was when the artists were available. The venue meant that we could only sell about 400 tickets, and CZF did a lot of fundraising to cover costs.”
Geoffrey Druker, who still leads the community’s annual Yom Hazikaron (Israel’s Memorial Day) ceremony, said he was recruited by Pinsky to become involved in CZF and it was from Pinsky that Druker took over the role of local CZF chair in the early 1990s.
“We ran most Israel-related community programs,” said Druker, including Yom Ha’atzmaut, Yom Hazikaron, Walk with Israel (which took place on Jerusalem Day), the student public-speaking contest and other programs. When CZF closed nationally, Druker said he gathered past local leaders of the group to decide “whether to become an independent local organization or join Federation.”
The choice was to join the Israel desk at Federation, and Druker continued to chair many of the events, with most of the Yom Ha’atzmaut activities being held at the Jewish Community Centre of Greater Vancouver, he said.
“Federation didn’t have the funds for a large Yom Ha’atzmaut, and we couldn’t risk having a large celebration … while keeping the event tickets affordable to all,” said Druker. “So we ran smaller celebrations and with less-known artists.”
Affordability remained key when Federation, led by a committee put together by Stephen and Shari Gaerber, took over the event.
“Our goal wasn’t to just make it a concert, but a real community celebration,” said Stephen Gaerber. “We kept ticket prices very low so that everyone could afford to attend – and if they couldn’t afford even that, we made free tickets available through JFS [Jewish Family Services]. We invited all Jewish organizations in the city to add their names as Community Partners, and dozens did. We had children from Hebrew Academy, Talmud Torah and RJDS performing in addition to Israeli singer Danny Maseng.
“We were given no budget (other than staff time) for the event from the Federation and I didn’t want one. I was determined that the Federation not take anything away from what they were allocating to local community agencies in order to make this event happen. We believed that the community would support the event and we were right. We raised the funds from generous donors, rented the Chan Centre and signed a contract with the performer. We put tickets on sale and we sold out all 1,200 seats very quickly. The event itself is a bit of a blur, but my most vivid memory is the joy people expressed to us at its conclusion.”
With that success behind them, the goal was to involve even more individuals and organizations in the celebrations.
“For years,” said Gaerber, “Jonathan and Heather Berkowitz wrote a piece for young community members to perform and we were fortunate to have Wendy Bross Stuart direct them. We later added the JCC’s children’s Israeli dance troupes to the program, sometimes joined with dancers from our partnership region in the Upper Galilee.
“Pam Wolfman took over chairing the event in 2014 and continued to tweak things to make sure everything is new and fresh and even better each year, including involving the entire community in the community song,” he said. “What hasn’t changed is the support from the community. To this day, other than staff time, the Federation has not had to give any funding at all towards putting on the event. The group of donors has grown over the years and that allows the event to continue to stay true to our initial vision – tickets are still affordable and many are available at no cost to those who need them – and the events continue to sell out.”
The annual celebration brings Israeli performers – from veteran musicians to up-and-coming singers and musical groups – to Vancouver on Yom Ha’atzmaut.
“For many,” said Gaerber, “it was their first time performing outside of Israel on Yom Ha’atzmaut, as they hesitate to leave the country for this important day. Without exception, they have all expressed how incredibly meaningful it was for them to experience the warmth of our community and its love for Israel. A number of our performers who would not have otherwise considered coming to Vancouver for Yom Ha’atzmaut have only done so because they have heard from other performers about their experience and our Jewish community.
“Despite our Jewish community’s relatively small size,” he said, “we have been told by Israeli diplomats that Vancouver’s Yom Ha’atzmaut celebration, always occurring actually on erev Yom Ha’atzmaut, is one of the largest celebrations of its kind taking place on that day outside of Israel.”
For tickets to this year’s event and a sneak peak at the program guide, go to jewishvancouver.com/yh2022.