It was in the dining hall of the Isabella Freedman Jewish Retreat Center in northwest Connecticut just over two years ago when the light bulb appeared above my head. Our program director, Adam Segulah Sher, was welcoming participants for a weeklong retreat focused on serving on a chevra kadisha, a community’s secret burial society. “Welcome to this special week where we join together to learn how to honor the dead.” And there it appeared. Yes, we have a retreat focused on honoring the dead, but how about a retreat focused on honoring The Dead? A Shabbaton built upon dedication to the Grateful Dead, the legendary rock band.
From the beginning, it was something more than a joke. This wouldn’t be the first article to observe that Deadheads are disproportionately Jewish, so why not create an opportunity for them to come together over the course of a weekend in the hippy-ish commune-like setting of the Isabella Freedman Jewish Retreat Center? Our first Grateful Dead Shabbat, a relatively small gathering, was held in 2011.
Having just wrapped up our gathering’s third year, with Blues for Challah — as we call our Jewish Grateful Deadfest — it is clear that what we’ve built is much more than simply a Chai time for Jewish Deadheads. What we’ve created is a portal through which all kinds of Jews — from the most observant to those whose Jewish life and identity have been sparse — can find real Jewish meaning, connection, and, as the Grateful Dead sing in their epic “Terrapin Station,” inspiration.
And in a time where the Jewish community is once again shaking its head and wracking its brain in light of a Pew Study that shows that the Jewish community is increasingly disassociating itself with Judaism itself in terms of ritual and observance, a program like Blues for Challah stands to shift from novelty to strategy.
The keys to its success are twofold.
It begins with meeting people where their interests are. Indeed, there are countless doors we can open for engagement; but people are most likely to walk through the doors that resonate with them, that call to their personal passions. For example, if we want more Jews to be engaged in sacred text study, and we open a portal with a sign above it that reads “Sacred Text Study,” who are most likely to walk through that door? People who are already interested in sacred text study. Thus, we haven’t increased the number of people engaged in text study; we’ve only furthered opportunities to those already engaged. That’s a great thing to do, but it doesn’t address the core issue.
And so we need to think about opening portals that are closest to people’s passions. At Isabella Freedman, we’ve opened doors with the signs “Judaism & Baseball,” “Adamah Farm Vacation,” “Ethiopian Jewish Experience,” and “Blues for Challah” with the hope that folks who might never have walked through portals that read “Text Study” or “Shabbat Observance” or “Jewish Earth-Based Learning,” for example, might walk through them.
The second step is what sits waiting when one walks through the portal, that the platform in which we engage is used as a foundation for meaningful Jewish engagement and learning. Indeed, that’s been at the heart of Blues of Challah. Last year’s Grateful Dead Shabbaton featured a keynote address on Grateful Dead in the Talmud, lovingly and passionately prepared and delivered by Rabbi Arthur Kurzweil, a Talmud scholar and Deadhead; lively and energetic davenning infused with Grateful Dead tunes led by Rabbi Moshe Shur, an Orthodox rabbi who spent part of his younger years hanging out with the Grateful Dead and their community in Berkeley in the 1960s; and text study focusing on Grateful Dead lyrics that then segued in sacred text study on song lyrics in the Talmud. And suddenly, Jews of all types, some deeply engaged and some disengaged, were fully engaged in Jewish community — and in Judaism — together. Indeed, by hanging a sign that read “Blues for Challah,” we introduced new people into a room that read “Sacred Text Study.”
At the closing circle of our second Grateful Dead Shabbaton, I was struck by the words of a few participants. A young couple had driven up from Asheville, North Carolina, for the weekend. Asheville is a 12-hour drive from Falls Village, Connecticut. Folks typically don’t travel 12 hours to come to Isabella Freedman retreats; they travel 12 hours to see a Grateful Dead concert. And this young couple looked the part. They acknowledged that, while Jewish, they had never gone to a single Jewish program before coming to Blues for Challah; but that they were now inspired to begin participating in Jewish community.
Beside them was a man in a black hat with payes. Almost in tears, he explained, “All my life I’ve had these two separate parts of my life — as an Orthodox Jew and as a Deadhead — that I could never reconcile… until this weekend. Next year I’m going to bring my children here with me so I can reconcile it for them, too.”
It was from those words at that closing circle, from folks who could not have arrived farther apart on the Jewish spectrum, that I knew we had created something not only fun, but something meaningful, and — I don’t think it’s a stretch to say — important.
And others seem to agree. Blues for Challah has already spawned an imitator in the St. Louis Jewish community, and we’ve received recent contacts from the San Francisco Bay Area and Seattle looking to create Blues for Challah Shabbatons in their communities.
If we can meet Jews where they live and where their interests are — whether it be through the Grateful Dead or baseball or Harry Potter or (enter your own idea here!) — and create meaningful platforms for Jewish engagement — we can help introduce a Judaism to our disengaged community members that feels meaningful, relevant, and, dare I say it, fun.
The time is now. As the Grateful Dead sang in Uncle John’s Band, there’s “barely time to wait.”
David Weisberg is the executive director of the Isabella Freedman Jewish Retreat Center, and, as a result of a pending merger between Isabella Freedman and Hazon, will soon become the CEO of Hazon, a national nonprofit dedicated to creating a healthier and more sustainable Jewish world through transformative experiences, thought-leadership, and capacity-building.
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