‘Israel Story’ to celebrate nation at 70

‘Israel Story’ to celebrate nation at 70

Radio show and podcast troupe bringing program to Kaplen JCC for Yom Ha’atzmaut

Elaine Cohen and Eric Segal co-chair Beth Sholom’s Ayin L’tzion committee.
Elaine Cohen and Eric Segal co-chair Beth Sholom’s Ayin L’tzion committee.

This year, the modern state of Israel turns 70. And that calls for an even more festive Yom Ha’atzmaut than usual.

With this in mind, Eric Segal and Elaine Cohen of Congregation Beth Sholom in Teaneck — co-chairs of the shul’s Ayin L’tzion Committee — came up with a plan that is meant not only to set this day apart but also to bring the community together.

“I had seen ‘Israel Story’ twice at the JCC of Manhattan,” Ms. Cohen said. “I was very impressed. It’s smart and witty. They tell authentic Israel stories, not in a political way. I thought they were great.”

The troupe, she said, writes a new show each time it travels. Describing the show planned for Yom Ha’atzmaut — “Mixtape: The Stories Behind Israel’s Ultimate Playlist” — group member Hannah Barg said, “It explores seven decades of local tunes, in celebration of one big milestone birthday. [It] takes us behind the scenes of some of Israel’s most (and least) iconic songs, and unpacks the dramas, complexities, and social tensions involved.”

“Israel Story” is a radio show and a podcast. Launched in 2013, modeled on NPR’s “This American Life” (another radio show and podcast) and produced in both Hebrew and English, today it is wildly popular throughout Israel. It also has an international following, including in the United States.

Mr. Segal listens to the program in Hebrew. “It’s so much fun,” he said. He’s excited about at being able to bring the program to Bergen County, he added. He and Ms. Cohen said that although Beth Sholom is the program’s lead sponsor, they hope other synagogues, organizations, and individuals will help subsidize the show.

The Kaplen JCC on the Palisades, which is providing both the venue and the publicity, has been very receptive. Aya Schechter, the JCC-based regional director of the Israeli-American Council, is particularly enthusiastic, Ms. Cohen said. Although the IAC had planned other Yom Ha’atzmaut activities for Sunday, April 22, it will add the April 24 show to its celebrations. Ms. Schechter has listened to the podcast, as have others on the council, and those who went to the JCC Manhattan show “came back raving about it,” Ms. Cohen said. “It’s nice to know there is an interest in this.”

Ms. Schechter said that one of the IAC’s core missions is “to create opportunities for Israelis and American Jews to connect.” That mission explains part of her enthusiasm for the program — another part is its quality. The initiative, she said, is especially meaningful because it came from lay leaders in the American Jewish community. In addition, “it will be interesting to both communities, creating a connection on a day that is so important.”

Aya Schechter

To celebrate this year’s Israel Independence Day, the IAC also is sponsoring an Israeli fair at the JCC. It’s set to begin on Friday morning, April 22, and to continue Saturday night and Sunday. Some 20 Israeli designers will showcase their work at the fair. Also on Sunday, families will be able to take part in “Celebrate Israel,” featuring music, arts and crafts, and food and games, between 1 and 4 p.m.

Ms. Schechter said that “in order to really know a country and love it, since culture is changing all the time, it’s important to stay connected.” “Israel Story,” she said, is doing something very innovative. “They took a medium  that is pretty new, the podcast, and turned it into a show. It’s very Israeli, very entrepreneurial, going around different communities and bringing Israel in a different way.”

“We’re bringing a very important program to the community,” Mr. Segal said. “In coordination with the JCC on the Palisades, we can make it a large communal event, as it should be.”

He noted that his congregation has been doing a festive Ma’ariv on erev Yom Ha’atzmaut for 15 years. “This being Israel’s 70th year, we wanted to celebrate it in a special way,” he said. The service will still take place, he said, “but we were willing to be the lead sponsor on this because we wanted to devote our resources to this kind of event.” Mr. Segal suggests listening to a podcast to get an idea of what to expect. (Go to israelstory.org to learn more and to download the podcast.)

Synagogues are being asked to contribute $1,000 to become co-sponsors. So far, Teaneck’s Temple Emeth has responded positively — “Rabbi Sirbu had seen them perform at a Reform rabbis convention and loved them” — Ms. Cohen said — as has Tenafly’s Temple Sinai. The committee is confident that more shuls will step forward.

Ms. Cohen described the initiator of “Israel Story,” Mishy Harman, as “young, smart, and fun. It started out as a group of friends doing a project and became a phenomenon.” Coincidentally, she said, he is also the son of “very old friends” of hers. His late grandfather was both the president of Hebrew University and an American ambassador to Israel. His mother is American, she said, and his father is an Israeli academic.

Mr. Harman, described on “Israel Story’s” website as “a curly-haired Jerusalemite,” left Israel after his military service to study history at Harvard and archeology at Cambridge. He now is finishing up his Ph.D. at the Hebrew University as well as hosting the radio show. According to the website: “He stumbled upon radio almost by chance, founding Israel Story together with his closest childhood friends.”

In Mishy’s words (again from the website, since we were unable to reach him at press time), “We began as a small podcast, meant for family and friends. But what followed exceeded our wildest dreams: Within a few months, the show was picked up by Galey Tzahal, Israel’s leading national radio station, and was offered a prime-time slot. Each of our first season’s eleven episodes reached an estimated audience of hundreds of thousands of listeners. The response was overwhelming, and so we’ve kept making stories in Hebrew, and also expanded into English!

“Israelis, we all know, are a nation of storytellers. So in many ways our task was an easy one — to shine a spotlight on the little (and big!) dramas that comprise Israeli life. Our primary goal is to tell the story of a different, diverse Israel: To amplify voices that are rarely heard on the mainstream media, to showcase and celebrate the plurality of local communities and traditions. By bringing you multi-faceted narratives on thought-provoking themes, ‘Israel Story’ aims to become a refreshing alternative. We don’t want to talk about Bibi, Lapid or Bennett. We’re kind of tired about hearing about the threat of the Iranian bomb or the Security Council resolutions. Instead, we hope to present a cross-section of ‘Israeliness,’ entering communities that are typically sidelined and silenced, and to tell stories that are not aired anywhere else: These are the stories you’d tell a friend over a plate of hummus on a Friday afternoon, the stories you’d share with your partner at the end of the day — Everyday stories, told by, and about, regular Israelis.

Ms. Cohen said that making the program a joint event is important because “Israel is a wedge issue in the community. This will bring people together with a feeling of shared connection and attachment, the feeling that we can celebrate together.” While she knows that most synagogues will plan their own Yom Ha’atzmaut event, she hopes they will join this event as well.

Who: “Israel Story” will present

What: “Mixtape: The Stories Behind Israel’s Ultimate Playlist”

When: On April 24 at 7:30 p.m.

Where: At the Kaplen JCC on the Palisades, 411 East Clinton Ave. in Tenafly

Cost: $15

Reservations: Registration is not yet open. Check the JCC website.

The following sponsorships are available:

Gold: $720 (2 tickets in a reserved seating section)

Silver: $360 (2 tickets in a reserved seating section)

Bronze: $180 (2 tickets in a reserved seating section)

Friend: $36

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