Gal Friedman clearly remembers his first spiritual experience. The native of Haifa, Israel, was 21, had grown up in a “completely secular” household and was spending his first summer in the United States.
In the woods just outside of Yosemite National Park, the young Israeli emissary connected to Judaism for the first time.
As a music counselor at Camp Tawonga, the almost 90-year-old Jewish sleep-away camp alongside the Tuolumne River, Friedman was taking part in his first Kabbalat Shabbat, the Friday night service to welcome the Sabbath.
“I looked around at one point and there were maybe 400 people — both kids and staff members — and we were all singing and dancing and sweating, and it was so exuberant,” Friedman recalled. “I just stopped for a second and said ‘Wow. This is a spiritual moment.’ ”
Nine years later, the musician and social activist is still trying to infuse that feeling into everything he does — especially in Israel. To that end, Friedman has created ShabbaTLV, a hip celebration of Shabbat aimed at young secular Israelis in TLV, a cool way to refer to Tel Aviv (and also the airport code for Ben Gurion Airport).
The monthly event combines songs, stories, wine and dancing for intellectuals, artists and others — including many who may not have ever celebrated Shabbat before. Usually held at a bar or a restaurant space, ShabbaTLV has quickly caught on, with each gathering drawing between 100 and 140 people.
Friedman explained how he got the inspiration for the program, which launched in March.
“Over [eight] years of coming back to Tawonga, I came to love the Jewish community there, these really wonderful core concepts of helping kids build self-esteem, tikkun olam and friendship with nature … they’d created something so delicious,” he said. “And I kept realizing, when I got back to Israel, that I lacked it there.
“I looked at people around me [in Israel] and realized my friends don’t even know the concept of dancing and exuberantly enjoying Judaism,” Friedman continued. “Eventually I said, ‘Why doesn’t this exist [in Israel]?’ ”
He turned to those who had guided him at Camp Tawonga, where he started nine years ago under the auspices of the Jewish Agency’s summer shlichim (emissary) program. He has returned every year since, and currently is in the first week of a session that runs through Aug. 14.
Roger Low, a member of the board of directors at Tawonga who believed in Friedman’s vision, made an “extremely generous” initial grant to help start things off. Then Friedman started visiting synagogues and other agencies in Israel to observe their Shabbat practices and/or to drum up support for his idea.
When meeting with fellow Israelis, Friedman asked them: “How do we adapt this celebration in a way that speaks to young Israelis living in a big city, with busy work lives? What is it that gets people to open their hearts?”
His advertising campaign involves new posters for each celebration, featuring cultural icons who could be said to embody the spirit of an exuberant Kabbalat Shabbat: Golda Meir, Mahatma Gandhi, the Cookie Monster.
Music is central to the celebrations. A regular ensemble of five musicians, including Friedman on guitar, plays host to a different guest artist each month. The songs are from all over the world — contemporary Israeli and other Middle Eastern music combines with American songs and traditional Hebrew prayers.
Friedman wants to hold the gatherings more frequently (he hopes to be at two per month by 2013), and he plans to branch out of Tel Aviv.
And attending the 2012 ROI summit in Jerusalem last month, alongside some 150 Jewish innovators from all over the world, he got some new ideas for ShabbaTLV. One was adding an in-home component, helping young people host potlucks and informal Shabbat gatherings on their own.
In the more immediate future, Friedman is planning ShabbaTLV’s first “silent Shabbat,” building on the U.S. and British club-scene trend of silent dance parties. Participants will be given headphones upon arriving, and join together for an extremely quiet — to the outside observer — Shabbat celebration.
But for the next few weeks, Friedman will be where it all began for him, in the woods outside Yosemite, likely bearing witness as some other young people have first-time spiritual experiences of their own.
“People have a need for this kind of connection, and our tradition offers such a beautiful way to make that happen,” says Friedman. “I just want to spread the word.”