Today’s Fan Friday spotlights Eli Horowitz – a kind soul with a huge smile and winning personality that just recently discovered the festival scene and is a huge fan of Pigeons Playing Ping Pong. Her desire for community involvement has driven her to volunteer for the festival medic team Bear Care, join the Bernie volunteer campaign team, and start a project that she calls “JamJews” – bringing together people of the Jewish faith in the jam band/festival community. As a student of a rabbinical school, she is wasting no time paving her own way to spread his spiritual beliefs in a unique and inclusive environment. We talked to her about JamJews and what it is exactly, her plans for the future, and what drives Eli’s passions for all of these initiatives.
What is JamJews and when did it start?
JamJews is a shul (synagogue) without walls that began informally at Domefest this year with a gathering called “Shabbat ShaDome”–an idea and event conceived of by the Schwartz brothers, Aaron and Nate. After our formal launch at Valley Fusion Festival, our impromptu service has become a community.
Why were you inspired to bring these traditions to a festival setting?
When I started rabbinical school, and also started picking up gigs as a medic with BearCare at festivals, I knew I had found a home in the festival scene. But I knew I had something more to bring to the scene: people at these places are often searching for many of the same things that religious practice and culture bring to people in physical synagogues- enlightening ideas and conversations that connect them to their roots and the world around them, music that surprises, inspires and delights them, that makes them dance from the sheer joy of being alive.
And many Jews haven’t found that in shuls lately, but have found something similar in the jam scene. Even better is that travelling to find religious inspirations at ceremonies, true festivals, has been a Jewish tradition going back to the earliest religious practices of the temple! My goal is always to meet people where they are at, and I want to help people find the spirituality they are looking for in the communities where they are seeking it out today.
Give me the rundown of a typical JamJews meeting. What do these practices represent?
Right now, JamJews primarily runs services on the Friday night of the festivals we attend. I start with a little introduction, letting people know what JamJews is, and a focusing thought or two for the service to come. I then play a traditional musical shabbat service, interspersed with an eclectic mix of secular music and jams, ranging from upbeat to contemplative. There’s usually a little something for everyone.
The songs usually are full of praise for the creation of the Sabbath, for the opportunity to rest that we have each week, and are full of imagery about the Sabbath Queen, about to be married to the Jewish people.
Somewhere in the middle, I make sure to weave in a dvar tefillah, a short story or lesson evoking the feeling of the service, and we finish with communal announcements, and participants from the crowd blessing the candles (or bonfire depending on the festival), wine, and bread. Each of these carries symbolism within Jewish tradition, and we explore a little bit more about one with each service.
We finish with an encore, almost always with a special guest sitting in. And of course someone special gets gifted the setlist after the show.
How did you meet other Jewish members of the music community? Do you find that there are a good many?
Right from my first Pigeons show I was meeting other Jews in the community. With the New Year’s stEve being in Pittsburgh, I just had to find time to pay my respects at Tree of Life Synagogue. It was there that I met Saul Kahn, my first Jewish Flocker friend. From there, Aaron and Nate created Shabbat ShaDome! Just running around screaming about Shabbat, and welcoming everyone to come, Jewish or not, we met a lot of people fascinated with Jewish tradition and culture.
But there are many Jews in the small festival scene, from all walks of life. Some grew up in very religious, insular communities, and find the welcoming, free atmospheres of festivals as a healthier, more loving opportunity to reconnect with their Judaism, and a good many come from less observant families and communities, but with a strong affinity and connection to Judaism, and a hunger to learn more, and explore things they didn’t get the chance to when they were younger.
Why do you feel it’s important to bring people of the Jewish faith together in this way?
Everyone has needs that go beyond the physical. Spirituality, connection to a community and the wider world are a big part of that. Many have friends in the festival community, but few organized structures exist to help people build community. While many of these communities develop organically, it’s helpful to have structured activities at a festival- that’s why there are workshops in the first place. Everyone can take pride in their culture, and I just want to show Jews that they can find some of the same beauty in communal prayer that they do in a set from their favorite band.
What is your favorite aspect of these meetings?
When I hear how it impacts people. Many have never showed up to a religious service that accepts them completely as they are. Many are new to the music and the songs- it’s different from how they grew up and it shows them Judaism in a way that they never expected it to make them feel.
On a personal level though, even though my technique has a ways to go, I take a lot of joy in performing. When I find a rhythm and jam to it really well, and get into it, and feel the song, I can see how that impacts my audience. That it’s people I know and care about makes nailing the performance even more sweet.
What are your future plans for “Jam jews”? When will you assemble next?
JamJews is just starting, and we CANNOT wait to have another go at it. Right now, we’re planning to make Shabbat ShaDome and Valley Fusion our two main festivals of the year, but eventually we hope to hold our own Jewish music festival, bringing the best of the Jewish music world together with the best jam fusion artists we can find. Eventually, we hope to have a JamJews gathering at a festival or music event every month, with services and workshops offered at various times throughout the events we attend. We are certainly open to suggestions on what should become a recurring part of the JamJews calendar!
What is an inspirational quote that you can leave us with?
“Our goal should be to live life in radical amazement…get up in the morning and look at the world in a way that takes nothing for granted. Everything is phenomenal; everything is incredible; never treat life casually. To be spiritual is to be amazed.” Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel.