There’s a food court, a petting zoo, inflatables, mechanical rides, an obstacle course, and rows of tents for vendors, all situated right off the scenic Piscataqua River in Newington, New Hampshire. It’s a summer festival like many others, but here the food is kosher, the musicians will play Jewish music, and the vendors, activities and events are highlighting Jewish tradition and community.
A project of the Seacoast Chabad Jewish Center in Durham, New Hampshire, the New Hampshire Jewish Festival gives Rabbi Berel and Rochi Slavaticki the chance to meet, greet and welcome new faces to the community.
Summer festivals have been in the Chabad wheelhouse for years, but they are new and especially exciting for the smaller, more isolated Jewish communities that have recently become home to their own Chabad centers.
“These festivals lower the barrier to entry for engagement with anything Jewish,” said Rabbi Shneur Brook, Chabad representative to Shelton, Connecticut, where the city’s Huntington Green was the site of the recent Shelton Jewish Festival. “In our small town, where there is little in the way of Jewish organizations, our festival—with kosher deli and klezmer music—gives adults and children an easy, fun way to meet and explore Jewish community.”
In Mequon, Wisconsin, some 7,000 people are expected to visit the two-day Jewish Food Festival hosted by Chabad of Mequon’s Peltz Center for Jewish Life, a division of Lubavitch of Wisconsin. The festival will include Israeli favorites like falafel and shawarma; traditional Jewish foods including stuffed cabbage, matzah ball soup, and noodle kugel; and of course pastrami and corned beef deli sandwiches. They’ll also have a petting zoo, a live DJ, kid-friendly shows, and a lineup of entertainers and performers.
“In Wisconsin, festivals of all types take place: Irish, Polish, Italian, German and on and on—people make it a part of their summer to explore their heritage or family background that they’re proud of,” explained Chabad of Mequon’s Rabbi Moshe Luchins, who organizes the festival. “From our perspective this is an awesome opportunity to reach and connect with locals with something that’s familiar to them, and at the same time for people from the Jewish community this is something that’s personal; it’s something that they want to be part of.”
In St. Charles County, Missouri, the third annual St. Charles Jewish Festival, put on by the Chabad Jewish Center of St. Charles County, will draw several thousand guests who will enjoy family entertainment, a lineup of locally- and nationally-famous musicians, and Jewish cuisine from around the world.
Both Mequon and St. Charles will create an interactive Shtetl Village, which will take participants back in time to a whimsical recreation of the old-world shtetl, the small town that was long a fixture in Jewish life. “We’ll be demonstrating how things like matzah, candles, and handwritten parchment scrolls are made, but at the same time sharing that this is what we do until today; it’s an authentic look at Jewish life,” Luchins explained.
On the West Coast, the inaugural Tiburon Jewish Festival will take place right off the San Francisco Bay on July 30th this year. A project of Chabad of Tiburon, it will include cultural crafts including challah braiding and a henna artist; a wine tasting and a hummus bodega pop-up; and a wide variety of family entertainment including a caricature artist, face painting and inflatables.
And in the Los Angeles, California neighborhood of Silver Lake, Chabad’s summer festival will include food trucks, pickle and candle making, a ferris wheel, comedians, and performances by Jewish rock and hip hop artists.
Regardless of where in the country they take place, these festivals are places where people feel welcome to enjoy a taste of Jewish life.
“A lot of the draw is for the food, of course, and then we layer the experience with different levels of exposure to Judaism,” Luchins said. “We’re taking advantage of the opportunity in our area, where festivals are so popular, and translating that in a way that we can welcome more Jewish people in a non-judgmental, incredibly fun atmosphere.”