MEMPHIS, Tennessee – It started at 9 a.m. at Audubon Park on Sunday with a 5-kilometer run, and ended at 7 p.m. after an auction for season tickets to Grizzlies basketball games. In between, the 6th Annual Israel Festival featured prominent speakers and interesting exhibitions in massive tents, as well as funfilled activities in the park, all promoting the Jewish state.

The main attractions included a hilarious felafel-eating contest and entertaining performances from Schmelvis, a Jewish Elvis impersonator, psychiatrist Steve Wruble, the Meshugga Klezmer Band, Memphis Jewish teen rapper Jack Fargo, the Israeli Scout Caravan and the Memphis Bottle Dancers.

Scattered across the large lawns and in the tents were Jewish food stands, Israeli arts and crafts, a rock-climbing wall, a petting zoo, a three-point basketball shooting competition, an MDA ambulance brought in especially for the event by American Friends of Magen David Adom, and informative signs about Israel, its leaders and its achievements.

One read, “Where in the Middle East can Arab women vote? Israel.”

Some 13,000 locals attended the festival on a hot day in a clear expression of their warmth toward Israel. The festival is the brainchild of the Memphis Friends of Israel, a support group sponsored by local Jewish and Christian organizations and businesses. The Jewish community currently numbers about 9,000.

“A grassroots event like this can bypass the media, which unlike The Jerusalem Post, are mostly biased against Israel,” said organizer Scott Baum, a top radiologist. “We have the festival at a public, neutral venue in order to attract larger crowds and show our pride in supporting Israel. People need to be educated on their own about Israel so that they can make their own informed decisions, and I think this is the best way to do it.”

At the main tent, festival director Shep Fargotstein, a premier investment advisor with Wells Fargo Advisors, presented awards to broadcaster Earl Cox, Israel’s ambassador to Jewish and Christian communities around the world, and Grizzlies general manager Chris Wallace, for strongly supporting Israel.

“The American Jewish community has fine-tuned – through groups like AIPAC – the top-down approach to influencing decision-makers within the beltway of Washington, DC, but there has never really been an organized, bottom-up complementary approach with feet on the ground,” Fargotstein said.

“That is what this concept delivers – influencing a major city’s perception of Israel. It’s really as simple as that.”

Cox, who helped launch the Israel Festival in Memphis together with Fargotstein and Baum, said he was honored to have been recognized for his love of Israel after attending the festival every year since its inception.

“The idea of an Israel Festival actually started here six years ago, and it progressively got bigger and better and all of a sudden you have 10,000 to 15,000 people showing up, and when you look into the audience, you see Jews and Christians standing together, and today I even saw several Muslims,” Cox said. “I really believe it sends a message to the international community that Israel does have support here in America, and when you give people an opportunity to come together for fun, food and communicating the message of unity with Israel, I believe it strengthens the Jewish community and it strengthens the Christian community.”

Baum said it could set a precedent for Israel Festivals elsewhere.

“That’s really been our vision, to have as many other cities as possible doing this kind of festival, with Christians and Jews together, and to educate the public,” he said. “In our community, we have very broad Jewish and Christian support. We have every Jewish agency in Memphis actively participating and donating money, and we’d like to get more and more Christian organizations involved.

“After six years, we’ve got momentum now and we’d like to share that with other cities, such as Atlanta, Charlotte, Boca Raton and Miami, which all have big Jewish populations.”

FOLLOWING LUNCH in the Jewish Food Tent, an Israel Rally was addressed by Rep.

Steve Cohen (D-Tennessee), Memphis Mayor A.C. Wharton, Karen Isenberg Jones, the director of media affairs and interfaith outreach for Israel’s Consulate-General to the Southeast, and me.

“This is a great opportunity for the city of Memphis to come together and understand the importance of Israel and the Jewish people,” said Cohen, as the crowd applauded in agreement.

“It’s a great venue. The food’s great. The smells are great. The people are wonderful! You know I support Israel and always will.”

“This is my sixth festival, and it’s so good to see the festival grow and grow bigger and bigger each year,” Mayor Wharton said. “I’ll continue to do everything in my power to make sure that Memphis is a place for all peoples to work, play and worship in peace and in safety.”

“I have been fortunate enough to visit Israel on nine different occasions, and it’s my favorite country in the world,” the Grizzlies’ Wallace declared. “There’s no greater cause than the promotion, defense and preservation of the Jewish State of Israel. We can’t take Israel’s continued existence for granted.

“Obviously, the enemies are great and large in number, and we’ve got to be vigilant and make sure that this type of event will be here 65 years from now.”

As he was checking cars driving in and out of Audubon Park, Sidney Goldstein, a CPA who volunteers annually for the Israel Border Police, said that he believed the festival had been successful in “solidifying” the Jewish and non-Jewish community in Memphis.

“We have the festival for the entire community, no matter who it is, to show that Israel is important and strong and fair and equitable,” Goldstein said. “I have a son in the special forces, a son in reserve special forces and another son who is going into the army in August, so we’re just a support- Israel family.”

Phillip Baum, 77, a leader of the Jewish community and Scott’s father, said he was “proud to be a part of this, for our community, our city and for Israel.

“It’s just beautiful. I think there is widespread support for Israel, especially among the Christian community, and this is a very, very positive event.”

Isaac Graber, 17, said he found it “a fun festival for teenagers to come together and hang out, not just with other Jews but with other members of the community who support of Israel.

“I have never experienced anti-Semitism or seen any pro-Palestinian or anti-Israel protests here.”

According to members of the Memphis Jewish community, two of the city’s icons – Martin Luther King Jr., who was assassinated at the Lorraine Motel on April 4, 1968, and Elvis Presley, whose Graceland home has become a major tourist attraction – were very close to the Jewish community.

“The one king, Elvis, wore a ‘Chai’ around his neck, because his mother’s mother was Jewish,” an elderly man told me after packed Shabbat prayers at the Baron Hirsch Synagogue.

“But the real King, the civil rights leader, famously marched with several rabbis, including Abraham Joshua Heschel, and addressed the Rabbinical Assembly 10 days before his assassination,” he added.

In that speech, King declared: “Israel is one of the great outposts of democracy in the world, and a marvelous example of what can be done, how desert land can be transformed into an oasis of brotherhood and democracy.

“Peace for Israel means security, and that security must be a reality.”

The writer was a guest of Memphis Friends of Israel.

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