It started, as many things do, in New York City.
The notion for a Celebrate Israel Parade began more than a half-century ago with Theodore Comet, who was, at the time, national director of the American Zionist Youth Foundation. He wanted to stage a public show of support for Israel on the streets of Manhattan, and thus Celebrate was born.
Over the next five decades, the event grew exponentially and inspired similar events nationwide, including in Colorado.
Earlier this month, the now 96-year-old Comet spoke at the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey’s Yom HaShoah event. The son of Polish immigrants, Comet grew up in Cleveland. He went to France as a student to volunteer in a program funded by the Joint Distribution Committee (JDC) to rehabilitate war orphans from World War II. In a twist of fate worthy of Hollywood, Comet, who was working at a home for orphaned children in Versailles, befriended a young boy named Elie Weisel. That experience inspired Comet’s lifelong commitment to Jewish communal work.
For the first New York City event, held on Riverside Drive, Comet, Haim Zohar, Charles Bick, Alvin Schiff, and Dan Ronen worked together to plan the Youth Salute to Israel Parade. The following year in 1965, David Ben-Gurion visited the city. Thousands of people lined Fifth Avenue, and the parade route followed today was carved out: north on Fifth Avenue, from 57th Street to 74th Street. The current version, which annually attracts more than 40,000 marchers, is described as the world’s largest gathering of people in support of Israel. In 2011, the Jewish Community Relations Council (JCRC) of New York assumed management and officially changed the event name to the “Celebrate Israel Parade.”
Now, a national network of parades and festivals mark Israel’s Independence Day. In the 1980s, the Denver event was a walk-a-thon for Israel. JEWISHcolorado JCRC Committee Chair Diana Zeff Anderson recalls an early version of the Denver-Boulder parade that was held in 2006, when the shaliach—or Israeli Emissary—Raz Arbel helped organize an event. In following years, Shaliach Michal Uziyahu, working with JEWISHcolorado’s Israel Engagement Committee and Anderson as committee chair, organized a walk in conjunction with the Celebrate Family Festival at the Staenberg-Loup Jewish Community Center. Longtime event committee leader Dana Friedman said that, over the years, “the event mushroomed in ideas and support.” It was moved to different parts of the city, and each time, garnered larger and larger crowds. In a normal year, said Friedman, “we’ve have something for every age group and a clearinghouse of events and information about Israel.” She says Celebrate Israel is also an event where, no matter where you stand on politics, “we can all come together to celebrate the values we share with the State of Israel: freedom of speech, freedom of the press, women’s rights, and so much more.”
By 2019, the Colorado Celebrate Israel event attracted more than 2,500 people, but in 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic forced parades and festivals to go virtual.
This year, JEWISHcolorado’s event is a COVID-safe, pop-up, drive-in festival in multiple locations, on Sunday, May 2. Space is limited and advance registration is required. Participants may pick up activity kits (including car decorations so you can take your Israel pride on the road) in advance of the event. In Boulder, celebrants can aslo join JEWISHcolorado’s current Shaliach Itai Divinsky and his family for a picnic in the park at 5 p.m.
Meanwhile, back in New York, the parade is virtual for the second year due to COVID-19 health protocols, and planners are already focused on 2022. The event website reads, “We believe we will be able to be together on Fifth Avenue for our scheduled date on Sunday, May 22, 2022.” Friedman agrees and says that Denver’s event will return in force. “I think people are hungry for connection, and we will resume in 2022.”