Jewlicious festival demonstrates inclusive Judaism

“Ugh!” exclaimed Rabbi Shmuley Boteach after taking a sip of clear liquid during a Shabbat lecture on March 9. “This isn’t vodka!”

His joke characterized the ninth annual Jewlicious festival — one part Shabbat learning marathon and one part Jewish spring break party. It took place in Long Beach on the Queen Mary hotel and ocean liner, or, as Boteach described it to an audience that was literally keeling over in laughter as he discussed gender differences and “kosher lust” — “a cruise ship stuck in a parking lot.” (The ship is permanently docked adjacent to a parking lot.)

Jewlicious is a grass-roots organization based in Los Angeles whose aim is to unite Jews of every background. Its weekend of activities included everything from improv comedy to “Jewrotica” to two Baptist sisters who recently defected from a controversial church.

“Anytime you can bring together Jews to celebrate and to be happy together — I think [that’s] a positive thing,” organizer Rabbi Yonah Bookstein said toward the festival’s end, sitting by the sun-drenched deck, with mimosas flowing and music blaring.

“Everybody who comes here comes for a different reason,” he said.

Whether it’s to help people make friends, find a partner or just party, the eclectic rabbi is principally focused on getting young Jewish adults to be Jewish in whatever way they feel comfortable.

That attitude is what explains a festival that managed to include both a lecture on “urban animal rights activism” in one room and a liberal, no-holds barred “Jewrotic” story session combining Judaism with erotic literature in another. These were followed by a Chasidic view on Judaism, sexuality and lust by Boteach, an author and Chabad rabbi who ran as a Republican for a New Jersey congressional seat in November.

The weekend kicked off Friday evening with three Shabbat services — sunset meditation, summer camp style and a more traditional prayer service. A fire alarm that went off during services, evacuating the entire ship for 10 minutes, in retrospect seemed just another novelty at the festival.

Jewlicious featured 45 speakers, as well as yoga sessions by Ayo Oppenheimer, founder of Jewrotica, who hopes “to bring the sex to the Judaism but also Judaism to the sex”; musical performances by renowned pianist and singer Sam Glaser, and the first public speaking engagement by Megan and Grace Phelps-Roper, who in November left their family’s infamous Westboro Baptist Church, which is widely known for picketing the funerals of American soldiers (see story, p. 26).

The sisters’ appearance at — and embrace of — Jewlicious may have been considered particularly unexpected, considering that only three years ago, Megan picketed the Jewlicious festival with members of the church, including her mother and sister Rebekah, who held a sign directed at Bookstein that read, “Your rabbi is a whore.”

Sitting side-by-side, the two sisters shared with about 150 young adults what it was like growing up in the church, why they left and what they hope for going forward. Megan, 27, said that she had concerns, for example, about the church’s belief that homosexuals deserve the death penalty and decided that leaving was the only option once she realized that “nothing was going to change.”

Their Shabbat afternoon talk was intense and emotional. At one point, when Megan and Grace described the pain of leaving their family and starting anew, they were both brought to tears — along with much of the audience.

The rest of the day was emotionally lighter, but just as intellectually intense. After a Kiddush lunch, Boteach gave his second lecture of the weekend, this one again focusing on gender differences. He focused on a specific question: “What do women want?”

Referring to spouses and their children, Boteach joked, “The wife knows the exact height and weight of every one of her children; the husband is vaguely aware of small creatures running through the house.” How, Boteach wondered aloud, can men ever know what women want when the two sexes are tuned in to entirely different mental channels?

It seemed that the class was going to soon discover the elusive answer — a prospect that excited male participants — when the weekend’s second technical difficulty hit: a roughly two-hour power outage on the ship and surrounding area. That brought the lecture to an abrupt end as security asked everyone to temporarily abandon ship — no lifeboats necessary because, again, the Queen Mary is adjacent to a parking lot.

Shabbat ended with a Havdalah ceremony under the stars led by Glaser, after which people returned to their rooms to energize for the night ahead, which included a “Casino Royal” featuring several tables of poker and blackjack. The night’s main attraction was a concert by Jonny Kaplan and the Lazy Stars, featuring Rami Jaffee, the keyboardist for the Foo Fighters and Wallflowers.

As Saturday night quickly became Sunday morning thanks to daylight saving time, dozens of people took some time to relax and enjoy drinks and samba dancers on the Queen Mary’s deck. 

Elisheva Silver, a Pilates teacher in Jerusalem who wanted to experience Jewlicious during her trip to California, admired how the festival managed to make “everybody aware of their Jewish background” while not aggressively pushing any agenda.

“It’s connecting people to their Jewish identity without shoving it down their throat,” Silver said. “It’s allowing people to choose how they want to be Jewish.”