JEFFERSONVILLE, New York — On a balmy Friday afternoon in August, hundreds of festival goers descended upon 68 acres of lush green landscape in Jeffersonville, New York. Covered with wooded thickets, wide open fields, and creeks bubbling over slippery, moss-covered rocks, this quaint corner of the Catskills soon became kosher for Shabbat.
Just a few hours before sundown, a diverse crowd in seemingly inconsistent attire rushed to set up their tents and grill their hot dogs before the onset of the Sabbath. Boys, decked out in Mets caps and tzitzit, or even wild flowing peyos and white Na-Nach yarmulkes, worked alongside a mixed group of girls dressed in modest ankle-length skirts and headscarves — or, much less modest shorts and tank tops. Their chatter is peppered with Hebrew and Yiddish as they wished one another “Good Shabbos” in thick Brooklynese.
They’re here for the Camping Trip, a shomer-Shabbat-friendly festival nicknamed the “Jewish Woodstock.”
Though not exclusively Jewish, the Camping Trip, which has a demarcated Shabbat eruv, doesn’t offer official programming from Friday night through Saturday night. And while the musical acts — popular Jewish groups including the Moshav Band and Zusha, and prog band Mungion — hit the stage from Saturday continuing through Sunday, the main event was Shabbat itself.
Twinkling strings of lights adorned a white tent in the center of the camp grounds where a large pot of chicken soup simmered all night, feeding the droves of people who came to pray or simply to socialize. Festival goers davened ecstatically, passing out prayer books, rocking back and forth, dancing with their arms around one another, singing “L’cha Dodi” and other traditional songs so loud their voices could be heard acres away.
“I think at most festivals the focus is on the musicians playing and making a good time for the audience, but at The Camping Trip, the audience becomes the band,” said Shlomo Gaisin of Zusha.
‘At The Camping Trip, the audience becomes the band’
Even non-Jews got in on the action.
“We are not a ‘Jewish band.’ Being surrounded by the Jewish community in upstate New York was really cool though,” said Justin Reckamp, of Mungion Band.
“It was great meeting everyone and seeing how rich their culture was. There is a strong sense of unity at these outdoor events and it really brings people together,” said Reckamp.
But the revelries were not lacking music — just instruments, in order to respect Shabbat for those who observe.
“The peak of the festival is everyone singing their hearts out,” Gaisin said.
Moreover, Gaisin added, “What’s special about The Camping Trip, and the energy there, is going camping and keeping Shabbos in nature. To keep Shabbos in the City is an oxymoron.”
When you walk out of a synagogue or Shabbat meal and onto the city streets, he said, where everyone is rushing around on trains, in cabs, on their phones, it’s counter to the Shabbat vibe. But nature, without electricity or the perpetual New York City buzz, is conducive to Shabbat.
The Camping Trip was one of many festivals in the New York area this summer, attracting gentiles and Jews of all stripes and colors, who came to dance, sing, mingle, and, yes, celebrate Shabbat.
In early July, a Rainbow Gathering took place in Vermont. There, a loose convergence of traveling hippies, families, and cityfolk from across the country, camp, cook, play guitar — drop acid — and aim for a sense of connection. In Vermont, an organic kosher kitchen was set up at Rainbow, and on Shabbat two prayer quorums attracted Jews of all kinds — Breslover Hasidim, the formerly Orthodox, seculars, and the spiritually curious.
A few weeks later, many Rainbow goers left the woods for the beach to attend Gratitude Migration, a Burning Man-style festival on the New Jersey shore with a view of Manhattan’s skyline across Sandy Hook Bay.
Under Gratitude Migration’s main tent on Friday evening, with hula-hoopers, fire spinners, and half-naked “Burners” running around the site, a small group gathered around on floor pillows to light candles, meditate, munch on challah, drink wine, and make space for Shabbat.
“We all come to festivals to escape real life, but also to transform it into something higher, something better than the day to day grind, and that’s what Shabbat is, that’s the magic that she brings,” said Rishe Groner, marketing and communications director of Gratitude Migration. Groner, who grew up in an ultra-Orthodox Chabad family, is the founder of The Gene-Sis.com, a movement dedicated to bringing teachings of self-transformation based on Jewish mysticism to people of all denominations.
“When we all sit together and sing a song or stare into the candles, that energy is there, almost immediately, and we don’t have to work as hard to rid ourselves of the weekday crap that we bring with us from the city,” said Groner.
Groner recalled the group singing “Shalom Aleichem” during Shabbat, when all of a sudden people came pouring out of the woodwork, saying, “I hear my people! That’s my song!”
“We had everyone,” said Groner. “From people who had never participated in prayer before, let alone a Jewish form of it, to others who had grown up in strict Orthodox environments and failed to connect with ritual, but still chose to come past and light a candle.”
“I’d always seen festival Shabbat as a place where the Israelis and ex-Orthodox go to enjoy the songs of home, and I’d never thought of it as a meditative experience in itself for really anyone to enjoy. That taught me what my intention would be for Gratitude Migration: Giving us all a chance to drop into Shabbat space, festival space, ‘highest self’ space, no matter where we are or when it is,” Groner said.
There are few environments where people from “all walks of Judaism” come together, said Ian Leifer, The Camping Trip organizer. “We have these labels, ‘Oh they’re Satmar, Breslov, Modern Orthodox, Reform.’ What is true is every Jew is a Jew under construction. We’re all supposed to be family.”
‘Every Jew is a Jew under construction’
Shabbat in nature, and at a music festival, helps people, both Jews and gentiles, break down the barriers ordinarily separating them in daily life.
While events like The Camping Trip, Gratitude Migration, Rainbow Gathering, and Burning Man attract many Jewish attendees (and Jewish organizers), they are not funded by Jewish groups. Ian Leifer funded The Camping Trip himself, and opened up his own land to host the festival. Participants paid entry, with early bird tickets beginning at $100. Gratitude Migration tickets cost about twice that, and tickets for Burning Man cost about $400.
Happening this week, Burning Man attracts festival goers from around the world, including many from Israel (Israel itself has a regional Burning Man in the Negev called MidBurn), and with them, come Jewish-friendly camps like “Milk and Honey,” which hosts a large Shabbat at Burning Man.
Music is an essential part of Jewish culture, and it helps eliminate the barriers in the Jewish community — from singing on Shabbat and holidays to rocking out to jam bands (as at The Camping Trip), said Leifer. “We have to break down the walls of the boxes. Look your fellow Jew in the eye and say, ‘Shalom, how are you?'”