With sun shining, Jewish Nashville’s steps outside to celebrate Israel

Posted on: May 17th, 2016 by tgregory

By Charles Bernsen 

The Nashville Israeli folk dancers lead a lively line dance in Bellevue’s Red Caboose Park as part of the celebration of Israel’s Independence Day. All photos by Rick Malkin

Hundreds of people attended the Nashville Jewish community’s commemoration of Yom Hazikaron and celebration of Yom Ha’atzmaut on Sunday, May 15, the first time the local event marking Israel’s Memorial Day and Independence Day had been away from the Gordon Jewish Community Center. 

It’s fair to say that the fair weather – sunny skies with unusually cool temperatures and little humidity – contributed to the big crowd in Bellevue’s Red Caboose Park. So did the decision to hold the event in a public park and actively publicize it to the non-Jewish community. 

Moises Paz (from left), chair of the committee that organized the community celebration of Yom Ha’atzmaut and Yom Hazikaron, along with volunteers Ruthie Alexander, Joan Mehlman, Rabbi Saul Strosberg, Joe Perlen and Victoria Crumpton Cohen.

But as special guest Ron Brummer, deputy consul general of Israel to U.S Southeast, noted in his remarks to the crowd, Jewish Nashville enjoys celebrating Israel whatever the location and weather conditions.  

“In the past three years I have visited 30 Jewish communities in the Southeast,” said Brummer, whose term as the top Israeli diplomat in the region ends this month. “And the Jewish community in Nashville is a role model to all the others when it comes to Zionism and support of Israel.” 

The three-hour event was sponsored by the Jewish Federation of Nashville and Middle Tennessee in conjunction with the Gordon Jewish Community Center. Moving it from the GJCC outside to a public venue was intended to make it more inviting to the entire Nashville community and to give it the casual feel of a fair rather than a staged event, said Liron Finkelstein, community shlicha (Israel emissary), the Federation staff member who was the main liaison with the organizing committee head by Moises Paz. 

As part of an effort to expand the celebration beyond the Jewish community, a Baha’i chorale led by Eric Dozier was invited to perform.

Kids romped on the grassy lawn and dogs strained at their leashes while many in attendance dined on kosher treats provided by venders SOVA Catering, Sweets Melissa & Sons, a Ben & Jerry’s ice cream stand, and Aryeh’s Kitchen, a new kosher food truck based at Vanderbilt University. 

Ten Jewish organizations set up tables, where representatives passed out informational brochures, tiny Israeli flags and other items. Children and adults “visited” different parts of Israel on a huge plastic map laid out on the grass. Nearby, Jack Simon, director of children’s programming at the GJCC, organized kids activities.

Akiva School students perform a choreographed dance presentation to recorded Israeli music.

And there was plenty of live music from the featured performers, a trio led by popular New York musician and bandleader Johnathan Rimberg. Playing on a stage festooned with blue and white Israel flags, they were joined for a time by Rabbi Saul Strosberg of Congregation Sherith Israel on the trumpet and Lisa Silver, the cantorial soloist at Congregation Micah, on guitar.  

“I love the fact that it’s more public,” said Roy Hiller, a former GJCC board member who was involved in organizing the event in the past. “It’s more accessible to the community and an educational experience for non-Jews.” 

Isaac Hanai, a future IDF solider, and Talia Ramon, a former IDF soldier, are among those who were given the honor of lighting torches in recognition of their contributions to strengthening the relationship between Nashville and Israel.

Among those attracted by the new venue were Kim and Alan Kaplan and their young sons, Jake, 3, and Ethan, 6, a student at Akiva School. They were attending the Yom Hazikaron/Yom Ha’atzmaut celebration for the first time since moving to Nashville more than three years ago. 

“It’s neat to see such a great turnout – everyone coming together,” said Kim Kaplan. 

Nashville’s Jewish community includes a small but active group of Israelis for whom the annual commemoration of their twin national holidays is especially important. 

“It reminds me of home,” said Israeli Danny Lemkin, who has lived in Nashville for more than decade and was attending the event with his wife, Andrea, and their three children. 

The 12 individuals or groups who were honored as torch lighters.

Indeed, as the hundreds of people in the park observed a moment of silence in remembrance of Israel’s fallen soldiers and victims of terrorism, a loudspeaker carried a recording of the actual sirens that wailed during the annual two-minute observance on Yom Hazikaron when the entire nation of Israel comes to halt. 

The event began with a presentation of the U.S. and Israeli flags by a color guard from the Hunters Lane High School Jr. ROTC and was followed by a Baha’i choral group led by Eric Dozier. Their spiritual-infused performance included a song based on Isaiah 11, the biblical chapter referring to a coming age of peace that is particularly important to the Baha’i tradition, an egalitarian faith founded in the 19th century and whose world headquarters is in Haifa, Israel. 

A recording of Israeli sirens plays as those in Nashville take a moment to remember Israel’s fallen.

The somber 15-minute memorial remembrance of Israel’s fallen began with a reading – in Hebrew by Finkelstein and in English by Erin Coleman – of “The Silver Platter,” a poem by Israeli Nathan Alterman often read at Yom Hazikaron events.  Playing softly in the background was a recording of a melody composed and performed especially for the occasion by singer-songwriter Jerry Kimbrough. 

Following a yizkor prayer led by Cantor George Lieberman of Sherith Israel, Silver performed “Yesh Kochavim,” (There are Stars), a poem by the Jewish World War II hero and poet Hannah Szenes.  

A trio led by New York musician and bandleader Jonathan Rimberg provided the musical entertainment.

As the moment of silence ended, Paz declared the transition to the celebratory phase, noting that as the 68th Yom Ha’atzmaut is taking place, Israel’s latest population estimates now surpass 8.5 million. 

As Hatikva, the Israel national anthem, and other Israeli tunes played over the loudspeakers, children from Akiva performed a dance routine. They were followed by the Nashville Israeli Folk Dancers, joined by more than a few children, who performed several lines dances to the accompaniment of the Rimberg trio.  

Shilcha (Israel emissary) Liron Finkelstein, who took the lead in organizing the event, gets a surprise honor – lighting the final torch. With her is Ron Brummer, deputy council from Israel to U.S. Southeast.

As has become a tradition, the local Yom Ha’atzmaut celebration ended with a ceremony honoring 12 individuals or groups for their efforts to strengthen ties between Nashville and Israel. Modeled after one in Israel, the honorees lit torches symbolizing the 12 tribes of ancient Israel. The honorees were: 

  • Celia Goldstein, a member of the Federation’s Community Relations Committee, for her advocacy for Israel in response to questions about its right to exist.
  • Raquel Pankowsky, sister of “lone soldiers” Shirit and Nathan Pankowsky, who was honored as a representative of all Nashville families who have loved ones serving in the Israeli Defense Forces. 
  • Leslie Sax, executive director of the GJCC, who was honored for opening her home to summer camp counselors from Israel. 
  • Rabbi Joshua Kullock of West End Synagogue and Julie Greenberg, education director at Congregation Micah, who were honored as representatives of their congregations for having established and supported the Get Connected program, which this summer will send its 200th area high school student on an immersive experience in Israel. 
  • Faith Haber Galbraith, chair of the Federation’s Partnerhship2Gether Committee, who was honored for vision and dedication to the program that builds relationships between Nashville and other Jewish communities in the Southeast to the Hadera-Eiron region of Israel.   
  • Tali Ramon and Isaac Hanai, the first a former IDF solider and the second a future IDF soldier, who were honored for their commitment to protect the State of Israel. 
  • Adi Raz, a leader in NowGen Nashville, who was honored for bringing her love of Israel to the Federation’s group for young Jewish professionals. 
  • David Solomon and Naomi Limor Sedek, members of the Federation’s CommUNITY trip to Israel this spring. Solomon, making his first trip to Israel, was honored for opening his heart to the experience while Sedek, the Federation’s annual campaign and missions director, was honored for conceiving and organizing the unique trip that included contingents and leaders from all five of Nashville’s congregations. 
  • Mark Cohen, a Vanderbilt University business professor, and Arthur Perlen, outgoing chair of the Federation’s Community Relations Committee, who were honored for participating in Gov. Bill Haslam’s trade mission to Israel last year. 
  • Revs. Warner Durnell, Gail Seavey and Tambi Swiney, who were honored for taking part in special mission to Israel last year for mainline Christian clergy. Also honored were members of the Jewish community who took part: Carol Hyatt, Lisa and Arthur Perlen, Rabbi Mark Schiftan of The Temple and Ron Galbraith, who served as the trip’s facilitator.  

The final honoree was supposed to be Brummer – or at least that’s what Finkelstein was led to believe. But Federation Executive Director Mark Freedman stepped in to surprise her by letting her light the last torch. 

“Liron Finkelstein has served as our shlicha for almost two years,” Friedman said. “In that time she has set a new standard in building community support and understanding about Israel. She is a tireless advocate for Israel, the place she calls home, and when she returns to Israel later this summer, we will miss her a great deal, but we will be left with a deeper appreciation for the land and people of our biblical homeland.” •