Rabbi Jonah Bookstein offers hipsters and hustlers a sacred respite at the film festival — not to mention at Coachella, Bonnaroo and elsewhere.
It was opening night at the Sundance Film Festival, and tony Park City, Utah, was hopping.
People from all over the world stood in the snow for hours to get into bashes thrown by YouTube, Stella Artois, Chase Sapphire and the nightclub Tao. Inside were hot DJs and musicians, premium open bars, celebrity sightings and invaluable networking opportunities.
The thousands who were turned away at the doors packed into the town’s many bars, like High West, the world’s only ski-in, ski-out whiskey distillery.
In the heart of the action, in a small rented condo on Main Street, a stylish group gathered for a different type of event: Shabbat dinner.
Forty people had registered in advance, but almost 100 showed up to light the Shabbat candles and say a prayer over the challah and wine. They mingled with Jews from the film industry while guzzling down homemade matzo ball soup, munching on fried chicken nuggets and falafel. The buzzy room grew quiet for a performance by Kosha Dillz, an American Jewish rapper who makes up his beats on the spot.
“It felt like a total break from Sundance,” said Megan Green, a 31-year-old from New York City who works for Google Play and attended the dinner. “You could stop by and have a bowl of soup and hang out and make new friends with other Jews.”
The dinner was organized by Shabbat Tent, a Los Angeles-based notfor-profit group that sets up creative spaces for Jews to gather at festivals.
For Sundance, Shabbat Tent rented a cozy condo where, in addition to having dinner, visitors could attend a Torah class, a rocking havdalah ceremony and other activities. For Coachella, the annual spring music and arts festival in California’s Colorado Desert, the group procured an actual tent where Jews in fringe bikinis and cut-off shorts gathered for a Passover Seder. At Desert Trip in October, at the same Colorado Desert site, it served as a safe space for people to meet after Roger Waters’s performance, during which he avowed support for the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement against Israel to, he said, pressure the Jewish state to end its occupation of the West Bank.
At other festivals, Shabbat Tent hosted meditation sessions, yoga classes and spirituality discussions. The space is always open for anyone —Jewish or not — seeking shelter, water, snacks or a place to lounge and rest. “It serves as a kind of sanctuary,” said Rabbi Yonah Bookstein, Shabbat Tent’s national director.
The organization unofficially started in 1999 at the Millennium Eve concert headlined by Phish. More than 85,000 people camped out at the Big Cypress Indian Reservation in South Florida for a two-day event, and a group of rabbis and friends decided to set up a tent for the many Jews there. The experience was such a success that the organizers replicated it at more than a dozen Phish concerts and music festivals in the next few years.
Now Shabbat Tent is an official organization that operates across the country. It gets funding from donors like the Alevy Family Foundation and Beth El Synagogue in Los Angeles, and has a team of volunteers who work under Bookstein to oversee the offerings.
Over the past five years, Shabbat Tent organizers have set up shop at the Lock’n Festival, in the Blue Ridge Mountains; the Beale Street Music Festival, in Memphis, Tennessee; South by Southwest, Bonnaroo, the High Sierra Music Festival, and the Rainbow Gathering, among other events. Over the course of 2016 more than 6,000 festivalgoers visited Shabbat Tent, the group’s organizers say.
“I think it’s always nice to be able to feel like you have a community on the road,” Green said at Sundance. “I felt like I was being invited into someone’s home and eating my mother’s chicken soup.”
But she acknowledged there was also networking happening — young people trying to meet the right people to jumpstart their film careers.
“It was definitely a Jews helping Jews kind of thing,” Green said.
Conversely, Edward Savio, a 53-yearold screenwriter and novelist from San Francisco, loved that Shabbat Tent at Sundance gave him a break from talking shop. “We participated in something that had nothing to do with film,” he said. “It had nothing to do with making money or pushing a project, and it was just people hanging out and talking and relaxing. It had a different vibe.”
Bookstein insists the focus of his organization is on providing services to his visitors: healthy food, water, shade, even a place to go to the bathroom. But there is also the greater mission of helping Jews, especially younger ones, connect or reconnect with their Jewish roots.
Savio grew up in a household where Judaism was something he felt guilty over, not something to enjoy. The Friday night dinner at Sundance changed his perspective. “It was a nice way to celebrate a religious ritual,” he said. “It was like, hey, this isn’t weird. It was just fun.”
Good Times: Above: Rachel Bookstein, Shabbat Tent’s co-director, leads candlelighting at the High Sierra Festival last July. Below: College students in the Shabbat Tent at Coachella last April.