October 17, 2018

Phish, Shabbat Mingle in Coachella

For three days over Halloween weekend, between 30,000 to 40,000 fans of the eclectic, free-form rock band Phish gathered on the Empire Polo Fields in Indio, site of the annual Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival, for Phish Festival 8. RVs and thousands of small camping tents staked out territory throughout eight campgrounds. And in one of those tents, on Friday night, Rabbi Yonah Bookstein led 35 people in a Kabbalat Shabbat service. This was the Shabbat Tent.

Starting at around 5 p.m., timed so people wouldn’t miss the first Phish set, a group of Jews and non-Jews crossed the campground dancing and singing “Lecha Dodi,” then, beneath a huge Israeli flag, they recited Kiddush, said the Motzi and ate a vegetarian Shabbat meal.

“We were basically making a big scene, and everybody pretty much enjoys it,” said Bookstein, who serves as director of JconnectLA, the tent’s sponsor at the festival. “You can be Jewish in so many ways and in so many environments. You don’t have to check your Magen David at the festival gate.”

The Shabbat Tent concept was created in 1999 by Shmuel Skaist, a musician and rabbi known to Phish fans as Rav Shmuel or the “Phish Rabbi,” and Adam Weinberg, a concert promoter. The two originally met in Israel and became friends. Skaist told Weinberg about his idea to host Shabbat at all Phish concerts and other music festivals, and before long they were doing exactly that, traveling around the United States. But the pair were operating on a small scale and with no funding.

The turning point for the project came in 2007, when Chasidic reggae star Matisyahu invited Skaist and Weinberg to pitch a Shabbat Tent at a festival he was headlining. The pair worked with the camping directors and festival promoters, and the Shabbat Tent, which took up a large space in one of the campgrounds, fed hundreds of people over the course of the weekend. The event was a significant success for Skaist and Weinberg.

“We had such a tremendous response,” Weinberg said. “The more we can get into the festival framework, the more kids we can cater to.”

At the recent Phish Festival, the Shabbat Tent didn’t get official placement, but it had its place. Phish has Jewish blood — the band’s bassist, Mike Gordon, is Jewish, and “Avinu Malkenu” occasionally pops up on Phish set-lists.

On Saturday morning, as the desert sun warmed the palm trees and a group of festival-goers sat on a warped trampoline drinking beers, the Shabbat Tent team walked around the campsite trying to pull together enough people for a minyan. Among the men they found was one fan dressed in flip-flops, shorts and big sunglasses and sporting a big rubber boa constrictor around his neck. Asked if he wanted an aliyah, he initially declined, saying he had forgotten all the Hebrew he once knew. But he relented as organizers urged him to try; he took the Siddur and read perfectly.

The week’s portion was Lech-Lecha, the story of Abraham and Sarah’s journey to a land unknown.

Lunch was served after prayers, with more than 75 people attending. For the rest of Shabbat the tent became a relaxing hangout, a place where fans could take a break from the chaos.

“The Shabbat Tent brings people together in ways that are more creative than other events,” said Aliyah Hemley, a San Fernando Valley resident who spent much of her time in the Shabbat Tent. “A lot of organized Jewish events don’t have much to do with the outdoors, so it’s nice when they are a bit more earthy.”

Valley Village’s Continental Kosher Bakery and Schwartz’s Bakery in West Los Angeles donated food to the tent, and at one point during the weekend, a woman dropped off 12 challahs, wished everybody “Good Shabbos” and disappeared, never to show up again.

Good deeds occurred all weekend long. On Friday, before Shabbat, fire marshals declared the area where the Shabbat Tent had set up to be a fire lane. They made the Shabbat Tent move, but not without help: camping officials got dozens of volunteers to help organizers set up the tent in a new area, and neighboring campers donated spare tenting.

“Even within the larger scene of the festival, you have community,” Bookstein said.