Building the Nile for Passover in Palo Alto

Community Passover celebrations aimed at kids usually feature matzah, crafts and face painting.

But the Oshman Family JCC’s upcoming Passover gathering in Palo Alto will include something one usually doesn’t see — a 35-foot “replica” of the Nile River, the one baby Moses floated down in a basket.

At the Los Altos History Museum, a more elaborate Riveropolis project than what will be at the Oshman Family JCC photo/mark johann-courtesy riveropolis

The waterway’s construction is being supervised by Riveropolis, a 15-year-old San Francisco–based company owned and run by Gregory Gavin. The plan is to put together a “kinetic social sculpture” that will incorporate the story of Moses and the Exodus.

This river will be shallow, but deep in meaning.

“Working with these water features, my intention is to engage people of vastly different ages and sensibilities with the magnetic pull of running water,” said Gavin, an artist, inventor and educator.

That “magnetic pull” is expected to help bring 800 to 1,000 visitors to the Palo Alto JCC for its free Community Passover Celebration on March 29, estimated Tehila Hendel, the center’s director of family engagement. The event, which will occur five days before Passover begins on the night of April 3, is for families and will run from 10:30 a.m. to 1 p.m.

The waterway — not big enough for swimming or wading, but good for dipping your hands into — will be set up in the JCC’s Jessica Lynn Saal Town Square.

“Travel in time to ancient Egypt,” reads the JCC blurb for the event. “Be part of creating an exciting and unique [waterway]. Sit under palm trees while exploring the river’s magic.”

The event also will include local musician Jonathan Bayer, a make-your-own matzah area for kids and a family photo area. Kids will be invited to “show your leadership by shepherding the animals in the petting zoo” and there reportedly will be rubber frogs inside the bouncy house to symbolize one of the Ten Plagues. For lunch, there will be two food trucks offering Mediterranean cuisine: Brothers Gow Chow and Arabian Bites.

Riveropolis installation at the Aquarium of the Bay in San Francisco photo/gregory gavin-riveropolis

But the real draw is the river. “It’s pretty and clean and people want to put their hands in it,” Gavin said. “It brings people together like a watering hole where animals come to drink.”

Gavin has built around 50 of these projects, including a river inside the lobby of the de Young Museum in San Francisco. Some are major efforts, with a lot of planning and construction. At the JCC event, however, the river is just “a rental,” Gavin explained, “with a standard set of parts I bring depending on the age group.”

The water project is a way to unite humans and the human spirit, Gavin said.

“When I started doing this, it was before SmartPhones were dominant,” he said. “And it becomes more relevant as public space is denigrated by all these gadgets.” Gavin said magic happens with his projects: People automatically ignore their cell phones when they’re around the water.

This “Nile River” will feature plywood ledges, hand-molded fiberglass channels and “no straight lines, anywhere,” Gavin said.

He said it will take three to four hours to construct the pre-fabricated river and about two hours to break it down. It will use only about 75 gallons of recirculating water, Gavin said, and includes chlorine for sanitary purposes.

“There’s something about water,” said Zack Bodner, CEO of the Palo Alto JCC. “There is that specialness and holiness from a religious context.”

image/courtesy oshman family jcc

Gavin added that connecting with nature, even a fabricated river, harkens back to a simpler time.

“When I was a kid, we would throw sticks at a tree,” he said. “We had this basic literacy with the physical world that kids aren’t exposed to now. With so many enticing [electronic] gadgets,  kids don’t mess around outdoors like they used to.”

Gavin said his “biggest satisfaction” at one of his rivers is when adults “move out of just supervising” their kids and start dipping their own hands into the river.

As for whether a “baby Moses” will be floated down this “Nile River,” Bodner joked that “if nobody else is available, it will probably be me.”

In actuality, there will be a crafts area for building mini-baskets, which can be used to float a “replica baby Moses” down the river, organizers said.

Community Passover Celebration, 10:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. March 29 at Oshman Family JCC, 3921 Fabian Way, Palo Alto. Free.