Bringing Jewish Spirit of Community to Burning Man Fest

Rappin' Rabbi, 'Burn Mitzvah,' and Challah in Nevada Desert

Trojan Horse: Huge public art installations like this horse are a key part of the annual late summer counterculture gathering.
Abra Cohen
Trojan Horse: Huge public art installations like this horse are a key part of the annual late summer counterculture gathering.

By Abra Cohen

Published September 13, 2011, issue of September 23, 2011.
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On a Friday night in early September, more than 150 people gathered under a domelike open structure built in the desert to sing, pray, light candles and share in the traditions of the Sabbath. The open-air design, decorated with colorful scarves and an illuminated Star of David, is not the typical place you might imagine celebrating the Sabbath.

In the middle of the Black Rock Desert in northern Nevada, more than 53,000 participants came to experience the 25th year of Burning Man, a counterculture city that comes to life for eight days each year. Based on 10 principles, including radical self-expression, self-reliance, leaving no trace and communal effort, Burning Man is the extreme sport of summer festivals. Facing dry, sizzling summer days, cold nights and 70-mile-an-hour dust storms, participants are pushed to their limits.

Some Kind of Shabbat: Crowd gathers for a Friday night meal at the festival’s Jewish-themed camp.
Abra Cohen
Some Kind of Shabbat: Crowd gathers for a Friday night meal at the festival’s Jewish-themed camp.

Drawing people from all over the world to Black Rock City, Burning Man installs large-scale art on what is referred to as the “playa,” the canvas of off-white cracked desert mud (400 miles from the ocean) that is about the farthest thing from a beach imaginable. The playa is an adult playground with multimedia productions, music, graphics and automobiles that are transformed into “art cars” with outrageous themes. Participants are constantly bombarded, stimulating their senses all hours of the day and night.

At first glance it may look like an idyllic scene from a Disney fantasy, but the reality is far less sanitized. Starting at sunrise, but not ending at sunset, there is a constant flow of booze at themed bars scattered around the playa. For those who avail them, there are also substances to help people enjoy Burning Man from an altered state of mind.

Refuge can easily be taken at one of the many themed camps at Burning Man. Sukkat Shalom, meaning “shelter of peace,” is a Jewish-themed camp that attracts about 80 people (Jews and non-Jews) who camp and take part in the community, sharing in the responsibilities of cooking and programming. While there are many camps at Burning Man, the majority of them are jocular and few are overtly religious. If any belief is mentioned, it is usually spirituality.

Sukkat Shalom hosted the Friday night meal, along with some of the services, and had the largest turnout since the camp was started. Josh Finn, who had flown in from Massachusetts, reflected on the large showing of people, saying, “There is something very Burning Man about Shabbat: being together with the community, looking inward and getting away from the day to day.”

The people who attended Sabbath services at Sukkat Shalom came from a wide variety of Jewish backgrounds. Though the lack of tznius, or modesty, probably limited the more Orthodox, observant Jews, all were welcomed in the space, including Israelis and even those without a Jewish upbringing. Some dressed in eye-catching costumes, others were scantily clad, while many donned yarmulkes and dressed in a more conservative style.

As the sun began to set and the Sabbath candles were lit, traditional melodies were sung and the majority of people stood, embracing each other, in a circle around the dome. Riffing on a phrase from the Amidah, Sukkat Shalom’s overhead mission banner reads, “Nourish faith in those who sleep in the dust.” Instead of “keeping” faith with the dead, as in the prayer, the refuge aims concretely and ironically to provide sustenance to the Burners, who sleep in the dust.

Dan MacCombie of Brooklyn said that Friday night was “one of the most beautiful Shabbat services” he had ever been to, adding that there was a strong spirit of inclusion and an open-minded crowd. He believes that a big part of Jewish culture is about community, finding each other and “the passion that we have in common.”

Beyond Sukkat Shalom there were multiple Jewish events publicized in the Burning Man guide and held in various locations on the playa. From serious workshops to lighthearted fun, the events included a challah French toast lunch, an introduction to Kabbalah, a theatrical performance of a bat mitzvah, various interpretations of a “burn mitzvah” and a rapping rabbi.

Not included in the guide was Lisa Schroeder of Portland, Ore., who runs the Jewish Mother Booth and “dispenses advice as needed.” A third-year Burner with a thick New York accent, Schroeder is herself a mother and grandmother. She decided to start the booth because she felt that she could give back to the community by offering sage and sound advice. “We don’t usually want to hear [advice] from our mothers,” Schroeder said. She decided that if she dispensed the advice, it would not be tied up with too much emotional baggage. Though most of the advice she supplied was lighthearted, some of the questions she got were very personal. “They usually involved someone they love,” she said.

One of the main themes of Burning Man is building art projects and viewing art that others created either before the festival or on the playa. At the end of the week, some of the art is ceremonially burned. Leading up to the final burn, Burners from various locations have smaller “Regional Burns.” The culmination of burns is at the end of the festival, when the iconic man is set ablaze Saturday night and the Temple on Sunday. The Temple, which is a much more solemn venue, offers a space for people to remember and place handwritten notes before it burns.

Whether it is community, spirituality or the idea of being in a place where anything goes, Burning Man is an extreme experience. Everyone comes for a different reason, but something about it brings together a community of Jews, affiliated and unaffiliated. Schroeder threw in her reasoning. “We are creative thinkers, artists, and we are not daunted by the desert,” she said with a laugh.

Abra Cohen is a freelance writer and photojournalist living in Eugene, Ore.

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