Parade part of day-long festivities celebrating Israel-US ties

NEW YORK — More than a million New Yorkers came out Sunday to show support for Israel by attending the city’s annual Celebrate Israel Parade. Hundreds of thousands of spectators lined the route of the parade along Fifth Avenue, drowning the street in a sea of blue and white.

The parade was one in a series of New York-area events — which actually started Saturday night, with the Empire State Building lit up in blue and white.

At 8 a.m. Sunday morning, thousands of runners set out on a sold-out Celebrate Israel 4-mile (6.4-km) run in Manhattan’s Central Park. According to the Celebrate Israel website, “The four-mile run is a symbolic journey through Israel, from Eilat to Tel Aviv.” Israeli runners were treated to a performance at the Central Park Bandshell by Israeli-born recording artist, performer, educator and music therapist, Dafna.

The Celebrate Israel Parade, started in 1964 and formerly known as the Salute to Israel Parade, featured school groups and other Jewish organizations from the tri-state area, floats, and marching bands.

“I’ve been marching for 31 years with Ramaz. Exciting, community building, great experience for faculty and students to share their love and commitment to Medinat Yisrael. We get a chance to demonstrate our connection to our spiritual and sovereign home,” said Ira Miller, dean of Ramaz Upper School on East 78th Street in Manhattan.

Marchers made their way up Manhattan’s Fifth Avenue, from 57th Street to 74th Street. The colorful marchers carried illustrations, collages, paintings, and other art forms that reflected the 2013 parade theme, “Picture Israel: The Art & the Craft.” According to the parade website, the art work was designed “to show the diversity of Israel and its people, the land/sea/cityscapes, accomplishments, etc.”

Security along the parade route was tight, with bomb-sniffing dogs on the ground and police helicopters above.

Among the Israeli participants at the parade were Home Front Defense Minister Gilad Erdan, Immigrant Absorption Minister Sofa Landver, Deputy Defense Minister Danny Danon and MK Dov Lipman.

“I have been to New York many times, but this was my first time representing Israel as a member of Knesset in this important parade,” said American-born Lipman of the Yesh Atid party.

Lipman thanked the US and the city of New York for its friendship towards, and support of, the Jewish state.

The day’s festivities were set to end in a friendly soccer match between the Israeli and Honduran national teams.

Meanwhile, several thousand people attended a Closer to Israel march in central London Sunday afternoon, the UK’s first Israel parade in five years.

The event culminated in a celebratory gathering in Trafalgar Square, which was addressed by Chief Rabbi Lord Sacks and Israel’s Ambassador to the UK Daniel Taub, as well as Secretary of State for Education Michael Gove, who declared he was “proud to be a friend of Israel and proud to be a Zionist.”

Entertainment was provided by Israeli pop star and former Eurovision finalist, Harel Skaat.

The community at the event raised funds for Help for Heroes, a military charity that has been in the news since soldier Lee Rigby was murdered last month by Islamic fundamentalists in London, while wearing a Help for Heroes t-shirt.


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NEW JERSEY — From Pierre Mevy Azaria’s calm demeanor as we sipped cappuccino in the lobby of his New Jersey hotel on Thursday, you would never guess that he is ultimately responsible for every aspect of the Israel versus Honduras soccer exhibition at New York’s Citi Field on Sunday — and that he’s getting married in Israel in two weeks’ time.

The well-dressed, bespectacled Mevy Azaria, CEO of the Geneva-based MCI Sport, seems comfortable in a range of countries and languages, and discussing a wide range of topics. He speaks openly and thoughtfully of his journey from childhood in Tel Aviv, to schooling in Toulouse, internships and jobs in Barcelona, and his current Geneva-based world of organizing and promoting soccer matches around the globe. And he discuses an upcoming move to New York City for his bride-to-be Laura’s law studies at Columbia University.

As we speak, he also deals with here-and-now questions and problems in a relaxed, efficient fashion. One member of the Israel national team approaches our table to inquire of the van driver’s whereabouts; the player is eager to go clothes shopping at a nearby mall.

An earlier mini crisis involves the room of coach Eli Guttman. “He usually gets a suite — to differentiate himself from the players, and so he has a meeting space. We arrived at the hotel and found out the room was given to another guest.”

How this matter was resolved? Mevy Azaria told the hotel manager, “You change the room, or we will change hotels.” He felt justified in making such a threat. “We came two months ago, looked at different hotels, worked out all of the details and signed a contract at this hotel.” Guttman quickly got his room back.

Israeli soccer players lounging at their hotel in New Jersey ahead of a match against Honduras. (photo credit: Howard Blas/Times of Israel staff)

I ask Mevy Azaria why the Israel team has not played in the United States in 35 years. “For lack of interest,” he reports unhesitatingly, but then explains why the timing is right, now, to stage what he refers to as “ethnic matches.”

“In the last two to four years, there has been a real development of soccer in the US — due to demographic reasons. There are a lot of South and Central Americans living here.” In addition, Mevy Azaria notes, the number of spectators watching the European Champions league games on TV “doubled in four years.”

Mevy Azaria is responsible for every aspect of Sunday’s soccer fest. “I rent the stadium, I pay the teams, hotels, and flights — for both teams, and I market the event.”

He says he found the management team at Citi Field “extremely nice to deal with” and felt it is “a Jewish-friendly stadium — like no other place in the world.”

Mevy Azaria was particularly taken by the kosher food stands. “This simply doesn’t exist in Europe.”

In addition, the Citi Field organization is particularly knowledgeable about the synagogues and Jewish communities in the area — a real help in promoting the event. “And the date was a total coincidence—we got two dates which worked for both teams. The Mets just finished up a series with the Yankees and are on the West Coast. And the date, June 2, just happened to be the date of the Celebrate Israel Parade!”

Mevy Azaria discovered football during a business school exchange program, where he had the opportunity to work for Barcelona, one of Europe’s very best teams. He began by selling tickets to Israeli companies for Spanish soccer games. Then, after a year and a half, the owner of MCI Sports approached him, looking for a ticket to a game. He then went to work for MCI.

“A company from Qatar wanted to buy the company, but I was given the chance to buy and develop it — which I did.”

MCI promotes “soccer friendly matches” in Europe — and is now hoping to expand to America. If the New York event is successful, Mevy Azaria envisions similar exhibition matches in such Jewish and Israeli-heavy cities as Los Angeles and Miami.

For now, Mevy Azaria is focused on Sunday’s event — and his wedding. “The game will be a great event, like a party,” he predicts. “The action doesn’t stop for 90 minutes, and it is a chance to cheer on and show support for Israel.”

Unlike the Israeli players who will enjoy vacation and travel time in the States in the week following the match, Mevy Azaria needs to get home to Switzerland, and then on to Israel for his wedding. “Laura has been very understanding.” She’d need to be.


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Jewish state’s elite squad is relaxed, ready and eager for Sunday’s exhibition game against Honduras

NEW JERSEY — The Israel national soccer team touched down at Newark Airport at 5:30 Thursday morning. By 9 a.m., the freshly showered guys were lounging on the white leather sofas of their New Jersey hotel — calling girlfriends, Skyping mothers, and playfully bantering with teammates, some of whom they hadn’t seen since their impressive 2-0 March 26 World Cup qualifier victory over Northern Ireland in Belfast.

The team came to New York for an exhibition game against Honduras Sunday at Citi Field, home of the New York Mets baseball team. The game — the national team’s first here for 35 years — is the final event of “Celebrate Israel NY” which also includes a Celebrate Israel Run in Central Park and the Celebrate Israel Parade.

While willing to give exclusive-on-arrival interviews to The Times of Israel, most players — many in the United States for the first time — were admittedly more interested in the van, soon to arrive to take them to a nearby shopping mall. Three of the adventuresome players hired a driver to take them straight to Manhattan. Thursday was a free day. A late-afternoon practice was set for Friday at New Jersey’s Montclair State University.

Israeli soccer players (facing camera) Elad Gabai, Dekel Keinan, and Shimon Abuhatzira (photo credit: Howard Blas/Times of Israel staff)

Midfielder Sheran Yeini was excited to be in New York, “one of the best cities in the world.” The Maccabi Tel Aviv player said, “I can’t wait to see the stadium — I know it is a baseball stadium!” It takes 48 hours to convert Queens’ Citi Field for soccer.

Yeini and teammate Elyaniv Barda, a forward originally from Beersheba, and a sixth-year member of the Belgian Racing Genk soccer club, take turns rattling off positive comments about the game and the national team: “We want to represent Israel. We need you! Come to the game and show your support!”

Both made reference to the Celebrate Israel Parade on June 2, on Manhattan’s Fifth Avenue.

“Two or three players will be on a float at the parade — then they will rush to the game,” Yeini said.

Defender Dekel Keinan of Haifa felt both the game and his time in the States “will be an adventure.” Fellow defender, Rami Gershon, originally from Rishon Letzion, was similarly enthusiastic in describing his first trip to the US. “We are looking forward to all of our supporters coming out to the game. We hope families will come.”

Kol Yisrael Achim,” he then shouted. “All Jews are brothers!”

Gershon, who has played soccer for a Belgium team in Antwerp and currently plays for Scottish Premier League champions, Celtic, reported that he has never experienced anti-Semitism or anti-Israel sentiment overseas. “People are supportive and helpful.”

Midfielder Maor Melikson of Yavneh, a player on France’s Valenciennes club, said much the same. “There is no anti-Semitism — the other way around. People bring Israeli flags to the game.” Melikson was in the States six months ago with his wife, who is not accompanying him on this trip. He will travel to Las Vegas for four days following Sunday’s game. “I am looking forward to all the Jews coming out to cheer for us!”

Israeli midfielder Maor Melikson (photo credit: Howard Blas/Times of Israel staff)

Eli Guttman, coach of Israel’s National team (who with players Tel Ben Haim and Rami Gershon gave an online interview May 29, as part of “Hangout on Air with Israel’s National Team”) was not hanging out in the lobby with his players. He was reportedly resting. Guttman was no doubt pleased that Pierre Mevy Azaria, CEO of MCI Sport, the event organizer, promoter and chief logistical officer, had recently “rescued” Guttman’s hotel suite, which had been “reassigned” to another hotel guest.

In the online interview, Guttman acknowledged that Sunday’s game “is an important game for us — every game for the National Team is important.” But he conceded that it has greater significance for Honduras. “On [June 7] Honduras plays against Costa Rica in the 2014 World Cup Qualification. For them, they must be on a high level. We, after the game, will be on our vacation.” Still, he said of the game, “We are serious, and we want to be proud.”

According to Mevy Azaria, more than half of the players will be staying in the States from three days to a week, to relax and travel.

In the days leading up to the game, there is still work to be done. Sharon Eyny, director of GIDNY (getitdoneny), seemed relieved when the players boarded the bus for their shopping excursion. She could get back to selling tickets and coordinating logistics.

In the Jewish and Israeli communities, she and her team have reached out to synagogues, restaurants, venues hosting performances by Israeli musicians and more.

And while unwilling to disclose the number of tickets sold to date, she noted that “The Hondurans are passionate about soccer.”


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The Original Article Published On The New York Jewish Week

An enthusiastic group of 72 bike riders and hikers, ages 13-73, arrived in Eilat on April 30 after biking since April 24 all the way from Jerusalem. They made the trip — the Ramah Israel Challenge — to support special needs programs at Ramah camps in the United States and Canada.

Meaningful moments included witnessing tank exercises as we rode past the Tselim army base; receiving snacks from nursery school children on the road outside their kibbutz; seeing the sunrise (and ibex) over Mitzpe Ramon and getting to know fellow riders and hikers, including a vision-impaired Jewish rider, Rick Goldstein, and his Christian minister friend, Derek Brouwer — on a tandem bike!

Perhaps the most magical and meaningful moment took place after Shabbat dinner, when participants had the privilege of meeting Herb and Barbara Greenberg, the visionary founders and long-time directors of the Tikvah Program at Camp Ramah in New England—the first Jewish camp program for children and young adults with a range of disabilities.

Herb and Barbara shared stories of the obstacles and opposition they faced in getting the program off the ground in 1970. They shared story after story of successes, like a camper with Down Syndrome inducted into the Jewish Sports Hall of Fame; staff members who went on to become accomplished professionals in the field of disabilities and families whose lives were changed as a result of their children’s full participation in an inclusive Jewish community.

After the Greenbergs spoke, three riders who are also parents of Tikvah campers spoke of the impact of Jewish summer camping and vocational training on their children, now in their twenties. Ben, father of Jacob, contrasted the difficulties he had around his son’s bar mitzvah with the unconditional acceptance he experienced at Ramah. Mark, father of Sam, spoke of the friendships his son has made and maintains all year-round, just like his brothers. Oren, father of Avi, spoke about his son’s important jobs around camp, and how he thinks of camp “the other ten months.”

The Greenbergs had no idea that their pioneering efforts would, in a few short years, lead to Tikvah programs at five Ramah camps (California, Canada, Colorado, New England, Wisconsin); in-cabin inclusion programs (Breira B’Ramah–Berkshires in New York and New England); vocational training programs; day camps; and family camps (Camp Yofi–Darom in Georgia, Camp Ohr Lanu in California, Tikvah Family Camp–Poconos in Pennsylvania).

Our riders and hikers came together for this challenge to support a wide range of programs for children and young adults with special needs. Each was aware of the impact of these programs and campers on the entire Ramah community. May we continue to see the Jewish world develop inclusive camping programs for all members of our community.

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