October 17, 2018

Aboard the S.S. Jewlicious

Slave hunters, reggae stars, cabaret, slam poetry — it was just another weekend at Jewlicious Festival, the eclectic, diverse Jewish festival put on by Rabbi Yonah Bookstein.

Jewlicious is a grass-roots organization based in Los Angeles whose aim is to unite Jews of every background in a “dynamic, judgment free, intellectually, spiritually, and communally stimulating environment,” Rachel Bookstein, the festival’s co-director — and Yonah’s wife — wrote to the Journal in an e-mail.


Held from Feb. 28 to March 2 on the permanently docked Queen Mary hotel and ocean liner in Long Beach, about 400 people, most in their 20s, attended the 10th annual event that was part Jewish spring break party and part Shabbat learning marathon.

Photo credit: Yitz Epstein Photography

There were dozens of performers and speakers. Aaron Cohen, an author and human rights activist, discussed his travels around the world to help free people who are being trafficked as slaves. Also aboard was Rabbi Shmuel Skaist, a rock star, Phish-loving Chasidic rabbi, who lectured on overcoming personal and spiritual challenges.

There were prayer services for the Shlomo Carlebach-inclined and for those who wanted to relive summer camp songs. There were classes taught by Hollywood veterans, seasoned rabbis and experienced social activists. And of course, there was food — lots of it.

Returning from last year’s festival were Megan and Grace Phelps-Roper, who in 2013, made their first public appearance at Jewlicious after leaving their family’s infamous Westboro Baptist Church, which is widely known for blaming America’s ills on, among other things, its acceptance of homosexuals.

The two sisters spoke to nearly 100 people about how far they’ve come in the past year. Grace, for example, said she regularly attends Friday night Shabbat services at Temple Beth Sholom, a Reform synagogue in Topeka, Kansas that she used to picket — and which her family still pickets. 

On the second night of the festival, after 24 hours of food, learning, partying and some sleep mixed in, the Queen Mary filled up even more as people drove down from Los Angeles — some on a Jewlicious party bus — for the weekend’s main attraction: a concert with Moshav Band and Jewish reggae/dub star Matisyahu, who spent the weekend aboard the ship.

Photo credit: Yitz Epstein Photography

Cindy Kaplan, a 27-year-old Angeleno who was attending her first Jewlicious Festival, reflected on the boat party as she cooled off after Matisyahu’s performance.

“It’s amazing to experience Shabbat with people from all across California,” she said. “From people who are already connected — doing Shabbat every week — to people who it’s their first time.”