500 Jews in One Room

Between connection and fragmentation at Jewlicious

Matisyahu’s music blasted from a sound system as Jewlicious attendees filed into the Jewish Community Center in Long Beach, CA on Friday, Feb. 19. Gray-shirted volunteers smiled as they arranged seemingly endless rows of tables for the three-day festival of all things young and Jewish. Shabbat was about to begin and the hall was set for nearly 500 dinner guests.

Older men with payos sat next to young men in t-shirts from Kentucky, who sat next to girls from southern California dressed in formal clothes. Nearly everyone was singing or talking, getting up from their tables to meet each other, passing bottles of wine or platters of food. Rabbi Yonah Bookstein, the founder and director of the festival, led the entire group in a rousing “Shalom Aleichem.” Matisyahu himself shouted hamotzi and began throwing pieces of challah into a sea of waving hands.  Others banged on the table in time to a song.

Josh Morris, a student at the American Jewish University, called the dinner experience “connection,” though having so many Jews in one room may have seemed more like a scene of fragmentation.

“Jews [are] together in the same place with other Jews. We have our own things, our different customs, but being together is a very comforting feeling and that’s the reason why people came,” Morris said. He was attending and volunteering at Jewlicious for the first time. Formerly a Reform Jew active in his youth group, Morris now calls himself an “observant Orthodox Jew.”

Participants came from as far as New York and Louisville, from up and down the California coast, Jerusalem and more. Marc Schutzbank and Caryn Goldenberg, seniors at the University of Pittsburgh, were there for the first time and did not know what to expect. “It seemed like it would just be totally over the top,” Schutzbank said. “Anything called Jewlicious, it’s kind of outrageous to me.”

But Goldenberg came away from the festival with a new sense of how diverse and surprising Jews can be, especially Orthodox ones. “They’re more laid back,” she said.

Jewlicious’s schedule reflected that “outrageous” diversity. Every hour, there were between two and four programs running. Between nine and 10 a.m. on Saturday morning, attendees could choose between a Shabbat sequence called Yoga for the Body & Soul with Marcus Freed, a program called Punk Parsha, a Jewish meditation session and a discussion on organ donation. The next hour, Freed offered another Shabbat yoga sequence at the same time as Reform, services, Carlebach services and another discussion on the torah portion.

While Carlebach music sounded outside and reggae resonated from the Reform services indoors, Freed’s session combined meditation, discussion and movement. When he said to the group, “Just let your body play!” jumping legs, stamping feet and twisting bodies ensued.

Panels addressing traditional text and contemporary Jewish issues, such as “Jewish Community and the Interweb,” filled the afternoon. Esther Kustanowitz, an active Conservative Jew and six-time Jewlicious participant who works as a writer and blogger, led the panel on the Jewish cybersphere.

“These are the people who are more involved in Jewish life, either on campus or personally, and they’re on a Jewish identity quest. It’s the eclectic nature of people who show up at Jewlicious that is the draw,” Kustanowitz said. She noted that some come for “cool music and people my own age,” and value the opportunity to hang out with Matisyahu on Shabbat.

Others, like Schutzbank, were a bit more skeptical. “I really felt like it was a huge JDate event,” he said. “It was a way to meet Jews. People were on the prowl.”

No matter what a participant’s motive for attending, Jewlicious had a program for them. After another massive Shabbat meal there was a board game session called Lazy Games, a Gaga tournament outside, an interactive workshop called Live Theater Project, a discussion on Jewish particularism versus universalism and more.

The particularism versus universalism panel provided another example of Jewlicious’s challenge. Nearly twenty-five people were trying to discuss the difference between donating a kidney to a Jew and to a non-Jew, taking the “two Jews, three opinions” concept to the next level. Other discussions, such as one about Jews by Choice, were so broad and crowded that many audience members did not get a chance to tell stories about their conversions. After the panel concluded, people broke into smaller groups and continued the conversation.

The Jews by Choice discussion also gave an impression of how diverse, or fragmented, the participants were. There were Jews from every denomination, people who converted into Judaism and people who became more observant.

Kustanowitz said that Jewlicious’s goal was “Creating this space for everybody to do Judaism, Jewish life and identity and culture in a space that’s comfortable for them,” but manifesting that comfort zone for such a diverse range of Jews was proving difficult.

But Morris, the American Jewish University student, felt that whatever the participants’ reasons for attending—and whether or not everyone bonded—getting so many Jews in one place was a success in itself.  “What more truth is there than 500 people coming to Long Beach, CA,” he said, “when they could have been doing so many other things?” 

 

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