When Joel Stanley first made the long journey from London to the Nevada desert for the enormous, incendiary, neo-bohemian art-and-community festival known as Burning Man, he found it a life-changing experience.
"I heard of it because a friend had gone and wrote me this 2,000-word email describing this amazing experience he'd had. I trusted my friend, so I went was just blown away. I went eight times in a decade," he said. "I think that Burning Man showed me what could be done with a bit of passion and imagination."
Now working as the Oshman Family JCC's director of Jewish innovation, Stanley plans to bring some of the inspiring energy and creative spirit of Burning Man to Palo Alto's celebration of the Jewish holiday Lag B'Omer on May 26, when the JCC will hold its first-ever "Burning Mensch."
The event is free and open to the community, and will feature live music, food, family fun and art. Though it's not affiliated with the official Burning Man festival, Stanley said he hopes it will offer some of the "same mixture of fun, spirituality, learning, self development and art that Burning Man has," and that it will allow people (Jewish or not) to experience Lag B'Omer in a new, exciting way.
He said the holiday, which provides a joyful break on the 33rd day of Omer (the otherwise-somber period between Passover and Shavuot) lends itself well to Burning Man comparisons.
"Superficially there are similarities because people create bonfires and it celebrates a kind of mysterious figure (Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, said to be the author of the Zohar, the masterwork of Jewish mysticism)," he said of the holiday, which is more widely celebrated in Israel than in the U.S.
"Mensch is a Yiddish word that literally means a human being, equivalent of the man in Burning Man, but it's also come to mean a person of integrity and honor," he said. "It's a bit of fun wordplay, the 'Jewish-ing' of the Burning Man name."
But on a deeper level, he said both events promote positive values, such as inclusivity, generosity, self-expression and creativity. Burning Man has 10 guiding principles and, inspired by that, Burning Mensch will have principles of menschkeit, promoting ethics, fairness, trust and other admirable qualities.
The first few hours of Burning Mensch will be family friendly, with face painting and the creation of a community mural incorporating the themes of Lag B'Omer. Israeli folk-rock musician Oneg Shemesh and the bluegrass-influenced band Shamati will perform, and there will be fire sculptures by the Flaming Lotus Girls, outdoor-skills workshops (including archery, in keeping with a Lag B'Omer tradition), and discussions on Jewish mysticism by local rabbis and community members. After 7 p.m., the event becomes adults (21+) only, and, in keeping with local noise-ordinance laws banning amplified music after 8 p.m., a "silent disco" will be offered. DJs will spin dance-party tunes on two channels while attendees tune in via light-up headphones and thus can boogie down together without disturbing neighbors.
Part of what Stanley found so meaningful about his Burning Man trips was the way in which he was able to integrate his Jewish life and spirituality with his time in the desert.
"The first year I went, I had this idea that Burning Man was all about letting go of where I come from and my background, challenging what I've been brought up with, but the Jewish experience and Burning Man experience got closer and closer. I found I didn't have to separate off any part of me," he said. Eventually he became part of the Sukkat Shalom camp (now called Milk + Honey), which offers interfaith Shabbat services (that Stanley ended up leading) to a diverse group of participants, in addition to large communal meals, dance parties, and workshops on skills, such as welding iron.
"I got really into creating costumes; a lot of what I did involved a lot of body paint," Stanley said, but in addition to the sense of fun and play, the spiritual element was strong. Members of Milk + Honey, now a nonprofit that does community outreach beyond Burning Man, have partnered with the JCC for Burning Mensch, helping to create and cultivate the unique atmosphere.
Stanley, who's also a theater actor and director, has been with the Palo Alto JCC for about eight months. Back in his native London, he founded the Merkavah Theatre Company and Moishe House London, a community center for young Jewish adults, where he implemented some of what he'd been inspired by at Burning Man.
"It was my attempt to create the kind of Jewish community that I wanted to belong to, engaged in tradition but confident enough to play with that," he said. "I'd say it (Burning Man) played a major role in my saying, 'I want something different here those amazing communal experiences, I want that.' I had the confidence to think that I could reach out and team up with others who want that, too."
He moved across the pond to California to work as Moishe House's senior regional director, mentoring other Jewish young adults in the East Bay, and the Palo Alto JCC reached out last year, recruiting him to help design its celebrations, Jewish learning and community-building endeavors bringing his urban London energy to the Silicon Valley's more suburban climes.
"The director of innovation part is really a license to try new and exciting things, which bring a bit of creativity to the Jewish life here," he said of his current job. And, in addition to enjoying the Bay Area weather, he said he appreciates the atmosphere of encouragement for new ideas.
"The British mentality is somewhat more conservative. Here, there's a lot of great support; it's seen as more normal to step outside the expected," he said.
Burning Mensch is something Stanley has been dreaming of since he first took the position.
"I hope that people will feel inspired, and that a large and diverse crowd will spread some of this spirit through the community," he said. "It's giving people permission to get creative in the way they do Jewish life, or the way that they create community celebrations, no matter what their background."
What: Burning Mensch, a community festival
Where: Oshman Family JCC Parking Lot, 3921 Fabian Way, Palo Alto
When: Thursday, May 26, 5-10:30 p.m. (21+ after 7 p.m.)
Info: Burning Mensch