Palo Alto JCC turns Burning Man into Burning Mensch

Eight trips to Burning Man have so deeply influenced Joel Stanley that he has devised a community festival — complete with towering fire sculptures — that he hopes will reflect the creativity, self-expression and spirit of that storied event.

Burning Mensch, a free event in celebration of Lag B’Omer, will be held from 5 to 10:30 p.m. Thursday, May 26, in the parking lot of the Oshman Family JCC in Palo Alto. The first two hours will be for adults and children alike, but after 7 p.m. it’s a 21-and-over crowd only.

“Lag B’Omer seems like a fantastic opportunity to share many of the themes that Burning Man has at its heart,” said Stanley, 36, director of Jewish innovation at the JCC. Live music, archery, dance, wilderness workshops, spontaneous chats about Kabbalah, activities for kids and food (including barbecue) all will be part of the festivities.


Fire sculptures by Flaming Lotus Girls, an S.F.-based group of metal artists, will highlight Burning Mensch. photo/courtesy oshman family jcc

“The centerpiece of the event will be two fire-art sculptures by the Flaming Lotus Girls,” Stanley said. “The 12-foot-tall sculptures are metal, cut with designs, with the flames inside.” The Flaming Lotus Girls, an S.F.-based volunteer group of metal artists numbering about 100, crafts art sculptures ranging in height from 2 inches to 150 feet.


Zack Bodner, OFJCC executive director, said the festival is part of a plan to create “Judaism 3.0,” a vision for the future.

“Burning Mensch is taking the ancient holiday of Lag B’Omer, which few non-traditional Jews know much about, and putting a modern twist on it to make it fun and exciting and accessible for Jews and non-Jews alike,” Bodner said. “We want to expose more people to our wonderful heritage, and we are doing that by bringing old traditions to life in new ways.”

Lag B’Omer marks the 33rd day of the Counting of the Omer, and it’s a day when restrictions of mourning are lifted during the 49-day period between Passover and Shavuot. The holiday marks the anniversary of the death of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, a sage who was the first to publicly teach the mystical dimension of the Torah, known as the Kabbalah, some 1,900 years ago.

Typically, Lag B’Omer is celebrated with bonfires, barbecues, bows and arrows — and the holiday is especially popular in Israel, where it is marked with picnics and other outings.

“We are expecting a lot of Israelis at Burning Mensch because Oshman has the Israeli Cultural Connection program, a great component,” Stanley said. “Also, some “burners” [those who attend the multiday Burning Man festival in the northern Nevada desert] in the South Bay plan to come. It’s exciting to think that Burning Mensch could cross-infuse with groups that take part at Burning Man.”

Milk & Honey, formerly known as Sukkat Shalom, is co-producing Burning Mensch. Stanley met the group four years ago at Burning Man, where it offers a Friday night Shabbat service and dinner for 400 or more people.

Workshops at Burning Mensch will cover how to make fires with sticks, how to make bows and arrows and how to survive in the wild. Two bands, Shamati and Oneg Shemesh, will perform. Rabbis and other teachers will be on hand to talk with festival-goers about Kabbalah, Jewish mysticism, the traditional meaning of Lag B’Omer, and its meaning today in Israel and the diaspora. Craft activities also will be part of the event.

Inspired by Burning Man’s “10 principles,” which define the philosophy of that event, Stanley has devised a set of guidelines for Burning Mensch called the “Principles of Menschkeit.”

“Burning Man’s principles cover radical inclusion, no money changing hands, radical self reliance, expression of the self and communal effort,” he said. Burning Mensch will adapt some of those. A community mural that illustrates the principles will be created at the event.

Stanley used to consider Burning Man and Judaism to be worlds apart. “When I first went to Burning Man in 2002, I felt that the two were very separate,” he said. “It seemed that the event was almost in opposition to Judaism, a place to let go of traditional associations, including my Jewish identity.”

Over the years, Stanley changed his mind. “I discovered a place for Jewish tradition at Burning Man, and that some of my most inspiring Jewish experiences could be infused with what I experience in the desert. Now I try to approach my Jewish life with that same spirit of creativity I feel at Burning Man, and try new things.” 

Even though Burning Mensch is new, Stanley hopes the event will provide a time and place for personal transformation.  “We want to lead people into the deeper experiences of Lag B’Omer, and encourage them to think about community,” he said. “After all, Jewish holidays are meant to be transformational.”

Burning Mensch, 5 to 10:30 p.m. Thursday, May 26, at Oshman Family JCC, 3921 Fabian Way, Palo Alto. Free.

Patricia Corrigan

Patricia Corrigan is a longtime newspaper reporter, book author and freelance writer based in San Francisco.