Photo Feature: Israeli Festival Becomes Jewish Encounter

Israelis gather at wild music festivals three times a year - and a group of activists brings Jerusalem to them.

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Ezra HaLevi, | updated: 20:00

When the Temple stood in Jerusalem, Jews would ascend three times a year. Today, Israelis gather at wild music festivals three times a year - and a group of activists brings Jerusalem to them.

The Beresheet Festival used to take place over the course of the Rosh HaShanah holiday, but Israelis were hesitant to attend due to the strong tradition of families gathering for the holiday. It was then moved to Sukkot, the festival of booths, where the hundreds of tents and huts erected by both young people and families are reminiscent of those built as part of the holiday by Jews around the world. The move also completed the alignment of the festivals with the three Jewish pilgrimage festivals - Pesach (Passover), Shavuoth (Pentecost) and Sukkot.

Tens of thousands of young people, along with entire families, camp out for three days on the east bank of Lake Kinneret.

This is not to say that the festival, on the banks of Lake Kinneret, is at all traditional. In fact, most of the booths and exhibits showcase eastern religions, cults such as Hare Krishna, and any number of flower-bedecked gurus. The largest and only air-conditioned tent at the festival is run by Jews for Jesus and offers free non-kosher food and baptisms.

A number of years ago, Jews from Moshav Mevo Modiin, founded by Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach, saw that there was a drastic need for authentic Jewish prayer, hospitality and tradition at such festivals - the sort of guerrilla outreach in which he excelled. Rabbi Carlebach himself attended similar events during his lifetime, often coming under sharp criticism from mainstream Orthodox Jewish rabbis and organizations because of it.

Rabbi Meir Schwartz outside the sukkah at the Bereshit Festival.
Volunteers arrived days in advance to build a huge sukkah out of branches and date palms, which was then lined with mats and pillows.
Young women attending the festival shake the four species.
Young Jews laying teffilin in between concerts.
Volunteers prepare food that is offered free of charge to all guests in the sukkah.
A young man stops outside the sukkah, puts on a yarmulka and shakes the four species.

Now, however, the US-based Orthodox Union has recognized that such outreach is not only necessary, but worthy of funding. The OU's star Israeli director of outreach, Rabbi Meir Schwartz, has put his backing behind bringing Jewish tradition to the festival, for the sake of building true Jewish unity in the Jewish State. The starting point has been the unification of purpose between the unbridled excitement of the "Moshav" crowd and the logistical and richly-educated OU network, loosely associated with the hesder-yeshiva framework in Israel.

Rabbi Meir Schwartz explains the essense of Jewish teaching: "A sincere smile does more than you can imagine."
One of the volunteers, from a hilltop community in Samaria, inspects the lulavim (date palms) to make sure they are kosher for use.

"We always operated toward the mind, but realized that we really needed to convey the emotional side of Judaism as well," Rabbi Schwartz says, as a girl with dreadlocks shakes the Four Species ecstatically. He turns aside for a moment to explain to a young man that the Sukkot holiday's Four Species - a palm branch, myrtle, willow and citron - represent the different kinds of Jews. "All the various Jews must be brought together and shaken to bring blessing to our people from Heaven," he explains, describing in detail how each of the flora are similar to an archetype within the Jewish people.

"Realizing that emotion is important, the taste of Judaism that is offered must be a deep one," Rabbi Schwartz says. "Shaking the four species is one thing, but giving someone a taste of the mystical reasons behind it is what is truly bringing Ashkenazim, Sephardim, religious, secular, left and right together. Understanding a deep, underlying message of an otherwise seemingly empty act makes its performance something else entirely."

Waving the four species during the festive morning prayer Sunday.
One of the hundreds of etrogim (citrons) donated to the sukkah of love and prayer for use by young festival-goers.
A young lady waves the four species.
Before prayers, volunteers made they way across the festival singing Jewish songs and blowing the shofar, the ram's horn.

Schwartz is most proud of the fact that the OU's participation in the festival ensures that the preliminary taste of Jewish tradition that festival-goers find is not the end of the story. The OU has opened centers, each called a Bayit Yehudi (Jewish House), across Israel, in towns such as Ramat HaSharon, Tel Aviv, Kfar Saba, Be'er Sheva, Modi'in, Nahariya and elsewhere. The centers replicate the successful model that has been set up across India for backpacking Israelis. The popularity of the centers comes from their open nature. "They are near people's homes, they don't require any specific mode of dress and they offer a wide array of Jewish educational classes and experiences for all levels," Schwartz says.

Although Schwartz himself was nervous about entering the hedonistic environment of the festival, he says he knew such steps needed to be taken, and went ahead with it after consulting with leading rabbis. "The religious Jews of Israel have to realize that sitting in our 'Gardens of Eden' behind our settlement gates is not the answer," Schwartz insists. "We must go down to hell if there are Jews there and bring them back."

Ita Mass did just that, together with her husband, leaving their home in the Samaria community of Dolev to spend the Sukkot holiday with the pulsating beat of dance music and just a stone's throw away from a mud pit filled with scantily-clad party-goers. The daughter of a prominent rabbi in Judea and Samaria, she found it difficult to adjust to the festival environment at first. "It was very hard leaving our children and spending the holiday in such an environment," she said, "but when 2,000 Jews showed up to welcome the Sabbath Friday night, it was clear that there was nowhere else we needed to be as much as here."

Overall, 100 volunteers took part in manning the giant sukkah that was set up in the middle of the "Holistic Village," across the path from a Hare Krishna tent and down the road from the large red Jews for Jesus tent. The volunteers sleep in shifts, for just hours at a time, as young people wandered into the large sukkah at all hours, to read from the vast library of Jewish texts housed in the structure or to talk, sing or attend a class on Jewish meditation.

Musicians play original Jewish music deep into the night as people wander in and sip chai or coffee.

Saturday night, the sukkah was visited by Rabbi Shmuel Eliyahu, the chief rabbi of Tzfat and son of former Chief Sephardi Rabbi Mordechai Eliyahu. The rabbi stayed for hours and festival-goers lined up to ask for a blessing or ask him a question about Judaism. "Many had never been in a situation to actually talk to a rabbi," Mass said. "They were really awed by his presence and the fact that he was willing to meet with anyone."

Rabbi Shmuel Eliyahu blesses the volunteers to be able to convey the truest and deepest parts of their Jewish experience to their fellow Jews.

The theme of questions was one that brought many people to the sukkah. A large sign out front read: "Everyone is entitled to one free question about anything to do with Judaism."

"Everyone is entitled to ask one question about Judaism," the sign reads.

"People came in with questions about prayer, about mikva (ritual immersion), marital questions and every other subject you can imagine," Mass says. "Many of them were very difficult and we would really have to send them to some of the rabbis who spent the holiday here."

Booklets explaining who stands behind the Jews for Jesus "Yeshua Village" and countering missionary disinformation.

The integration of the House of Prayer and Love, as it is usually called, into the festival, was a long process. It began as a small tent on the edge of the festival, offered no support by the organizers, who were even antagonistic toward it. Now, the Jewish space is not only recognized and offered its choice of location, but appears on the official programs, with listings of its classes, prayer-times and offered services.

A Yemenite man attending the festival who offered to lead the morning prayers.

Even the gentile German organizer of the entire affair has developed a soft spot for the Jewish tent. "You look around here and the youth of Israel are really filled with fire and searching for real beliefs and true experiences to channel that fire toward," he said. "I see this festival as showcasing paths for them, and it is so important that there be a Jewish one available."

The German festival organizer in front of his 'wishing-tree.'


He speaks in front of a tree he transplanted to the festival upon which participants are encouraged to hang notes with their hopes and dreams written on them - to be burned at the end of the festival. "To me, this is just a form of prayer. Young people who may never have prayed all of a sudden are writing about their dreams and offering a prayer," he said. "It is good."

Michoel Golumb, one of the first students of Rabbi Carlebach who began organizing the Jewish presence at the festivals, is not at all surprised that a festival run by a non-Jewish German man, staffed by a wide array of idolatrous and missionary organizations and attended by young people wearing almost nothing - has become the site of some of the most intense Jewish guerrilla outreach in Israel.

"Rabbi Nachman said that during these times, it will be the husk [kabbalistic term for the bad exterior -ed.] that will wake people up," Golumb explains. "It is specifically at festivals like this that sweet young Israeli Jews are walking around, and through seeing all the spiritual paths of the non-Jews, become open to talking about and thinking about G-d. They are away from regular life, seeing all these new and strange things and are searching for something real. Why not take a taste of the traditions of their forefathers and foremothers?"

Press "Play" below or Click here to listen to Israel National Radio's Ben Bresky's coverage of the festival, featuring interviews with volunteers, attendees and performers.

For more information, contact Meir Schwartz - email: cellular phone: 050-794-8613


Michoel Golumb of Moshav Modi'in speaks with a young party-goer about the Eternal.

(Photos: Josh Shamsi, Arutz-7 Photojournalist)