Skipping the chicken-kebab barbecues that perfume Israel’s parks each Succot, thousands flocked to the Ramat Gan National Park on Monday – lining up to taste “the best” vegan malabi, try on a pair of vegan shoes or take home a box of vegan condoms.
Animal rights activists, natural- food lovers and the just plain curious gathered for Vegan Fest, which claims to be the world’s largest festival for those that don’t consume animal products. The fair attracted some 15,000 advanced-ticket purchases and brought together about 100 vendors hoping to sell their animal-product free wares.
Now in its second year, Vegan Fest is the brainchild of Omri Paz, the director of the nonprofit organization Vegan- Friendly, which aims to make veganism accessible and socially acceptable among Israelis.
“There are people here who are vegan, vegetarians and people who eat meat,” Uria Yaakoba, the volunteer coordinator for the event, told The Jerusalem Post, while managing some 150 volunteers over a constantly chirping walkie- talkie. “People are waking up and becoming exposed to this.”
Dodging through crowds of revelers sporting T-shirts with slogans like “I love vegan boys” and “Proud to be a vegan,” visitors sampled everything from animal-free cosmetics and vitamins to vegan Domino’s Pizza.
Vegan catering services advertised their wares, while the Knaffe Noga stand offered “the best knaffe and malabi from Israel with love” – Middle Eastern desserts that typically require copious amounts of cheese and milk. Here, however, coconut cream was the base of choice.
“Some people like it more than the original,” said the company’s owner, Danny Phillips.
Young women eyed the Katalina shoe booth, purchasing non-leather flats and boots that went for between NIS 150 and NIS 300, depending on the style.
Just around the corner, boxes of organic and vegan prophylactics – offering choices such as wildberry, blueberry, tight fit, and super max – were going for 50 shekel.
“We have the biggest condom in Israel,” said Ira Makiyenko, sporting a profanity-laced shirt advocating the use of vegan condoms.
Makiyenko personally helped bring the Australian Glyde condoms to Israel a year-and-a-half ago. Attracting mostly female customers to her booth, she explained how typical condoms include milk proteins in their production, while these contain no chemicals, are comfortably designed and promise safety.
In a testament to the diversity of the vendors present, across the field and amid a slew of animal rights groups were representatives of the ultra-Orthodox organization Behemla: Haredim Volunteering for Animals.
“We deal mostly with animal rights in industry,” the organization’s chairman, Yehuda Shine, told the Post. “We support veganism but it’s not our central agenda.”
Shine said he and his colleagues have conducted several successful campaigns, including one to curb the practice of the kapparot ritual with live chickens before Yom Kippur. In addition, the group advocates for the use of synthetic shtreimels (hats worn by hassidic men) rather than those traditionally made of fur, and spreads awareness about animal rights in both religious and secular schools, he explained.
“There is a solution for every challenge – it’s all about awareness,” Shine added.
In addition to the booths selling products and aiming to educate passersby, a “holistic” tent provided classes such as Iyengar yoga throughout the day, while a children’s play area offered a giant moonwalk obstacle course.
Throughout the event – which opened at noon and was slated to last till 11 p.m. – various DJs and performers took to the main stage, while vegan industry experts and academics partook in a series of lectures in a tent filled to capacity.
While most of the lecturers were Israelis, the lineup also included New York Prof. Richard Schwartz who serves as president of the Jewish Vegetarians of North America.
Schwartz spoke about why Jews should be vegans, since the diet is most consistent with Jewish teachings about preserving human health, treating animals with compassion and protecting the environment.
A shift to vegan diets, Schwartz argued, could reduce diseases among Jews and humans as a whole, as well as help curb climate disasters.
“Having the world’s largest vegan festival in Israel is a tribute to Israel,” Schwartz told the Post.
“It demonstrates that many Jews take seriously Jewish teachings on compassion, environmental stewardship, preservation of human life and concern for the poor.”
Given the event’s success in attracting so many people of various ages, communities and interests, Yaakoba, the volunteer coordinator, said he hoped the festival would bring more people to embrace the vegan lifestyle.
“We don’t see it as a trend,” he said. “We think people are moving toward veganism, not going back.”