It may sound like a birthday card cliché, but to the Jewish Federation of Howard County’s shlichah (Israeli emissary) Ella Haetzni, Israel is not 70 years old, but 70 years young.
“It’s less than a lifetime. And yet we’ve gone from Holocaust to revival,” Haetzni said, quoting this year’s theme for all of Israel’s shluchim.
Haetzni’s host community celebrated 70 years of Israeli independence on Sunday with its “Israel at 70 Festival” at Temple Isaiah in Fulton.
“In America, you have the Fourth of July,” said Haetzni. “In Israel, we have Yom Ha’atzmaut. This festival was a Yom Ha’atzmaut celebration,” even though it fell a couple weeks later than Israel’s observance in mid-April.
Even with a date later in the spring, chilly temperatures and the threat of rain drove the event inside the synagogue. The only casualty of the weather appeared to be the planned moon bounce, which had to be nixed. The weather didn’t appear to dampen attendance: Haetzni estimates the event drew more than 300 people of all ages, from retirees to a 6-week-old baby showing Israeli pride in blue-and-white striped pajamas.
Guests enjoyed Israeli wine and beer tastings, Israeli food (including a falafel bar from Rubin & Schmaltz), music and dance performances, carnival games, an Israel Defense Forces obstacle course and activities for the whole family.
At a green-screen photo booth, people could choose an Israel-themed background and don hats and props such as Israeli flags and signs that read “You Had Me at Shalom.”
As her mother looked on, elementary school student Joanna Proper picked out a background of Tel Aviv. “I thought it looked pretty in the picture,” she said. Her mother, Rachael Simon, is the executive vice president of the Jewish Federation of Howard County’s board of directors. “I probably would have come anyway with my kids, because it’s a kid-friendly Israel event, but I’m also here to support the event,” Simon said. “I’m really pleased with how large the turnout is.”
At a miniature mock Kotel constructed by committee member Anat Hen, people could write prayers and messages and stick them in between the “stones.” According to Hen, the messages would be brought to Israel and placed in the real Kotel by Haetzni when she next traveled to Israel.
Across the room, guests could write letters that would be delivered to Israel Defense Forces soldiers. The booth even offered a cheat sheet of Hebrew words such as “thank you,” “Israel,” “peace,” “soldier” and “security.”
Four-year-old Emmy Lukin, who attends Temple Isaiah’s preschool, thought carefully before she pressed her red marker into her letter. She carefully spelled “thank you” in capital letters at the top of the page, drew a detailed picture of her family and signed her name.
Emmy’s father Josh Lukin, who was volunteering at the booth, said, “It’s wonderful for the kids to have a sense of what Israel can mean to them, to learn about the history of the country, and how important it is. And even though we live in America, to support it however we can.”
Members of Hadassah of Howard County ran the wine tasting, offering flights of Israeli wines and samples of Israeli beers.
Shula Finkelstein said Israel’s wine industry is growing because “the climate is conducive to growing grapes and producing wines.” Finkelstein hoped the event would “encourage people to support Israel economically as well as culturally — buy Israeli products and support Israeli companies.”
Finkelstein said she supports Israel down to a cellular level. “If you’re Jewish,” she said, “there’s a longing for Israel in your DNA.”
She repeated these sentiments during the event’s presentation, in which committee members took the microphone to tell audience members what Israel meant to them. Also during the presentation, county leaders issued a citation to mark the milestone.
Speaking to the assembled crowd after the ceremony, Haetzni acknowledged Israel’s 70 years of growth and evolution. “It started as a shelter,” Haetzni said. But is now a “sophisticated country that leads in a lot of fields.”
The Highlights, a duo musical act, then led the crowd in singing the national anthems of both the United States and Israel.
Rachel Petroff Kessler, Temple Isaiah’s family educator, said she was “thrilled” Temple Isaiah hosted Israel’s 70th birthday with the Jewish Federation.
“I think it’s a tremendous milestone for the Jewish people,” she said. “No matter what our feelings about the current state of Israel, it’s really the lifeblood of the Jewish people.
“For us to come together as a community and celebrate the things we love about the country, it’s the best thing.”
Erica Rimlinger is a local freelance writer.