Sills sits on the ground among his many instruments
Eliyahu Sills will perform at the Santa Cruz Jewish Cultural Festival with his Qadim Ensemble.

Jewish culture fest a great excuse to pop down to Santa Cruz

Rabbi Shifra Weiss-Penzias knows Jews are a small minority in her home base of Santa Cruz. That’s why she hopes the locals will “come out of the woodwork” to her synagogue’s upcoming Jewish Cultural Festival.

Organizers expect up to 1,500 people to attend the festival, which will be held Sunday, June 11 at Temple Beth El in Aptos. Running from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m., the event will feature food, live music, local artists, kid-friendly activities, brief TED-style talks and “Ask the Rabbi” panels. Admission is free.

Weiss-Penzias, the associate rabbi at Beth El, said the festival is significant because it gives Santa Cruz County’s Jews a chance to connect with each other and with Jewish culture in an area that’s “historically been an area of nonconformists.”

Attending is “an expression of Jewish culture and Jewish pride,” she said. “People who often feel like a minority get to feel like a majority and celebrate.”

Rabbi Shifra Weiss-Penzias
Rabbi Shifra Weiss-Penzias

Weiss-Penzias will be one of the three rabbis answering questions during the “Ask the Rabbi” session, something Beth El typically stages every year during the High Holy Days. This panel should gives people a chance to ask the rabbis any questions — philosophical, religious, emotional or otherwise — they may have long wondered about but haven’t had a forum in which to ask them.

“Because it’s so wide open, it’s an opportunity for people to get to know us,” said Weiss-Penzias, who comes from eight generations of rabbis on her mother’s side.

Beth El has been putting on a Jewish cultural festival every other year, but the plan is to start holding them more frequently. The next one is planned for June 2018.

“We provide a smattering of Jewish culture as much as possible, so people can get a flavor of it [whether they’re] Jewish or not Jewish,” explained Mark Abadi, a holistic psychologist who has written a book, “Evolve,” that “explores the fundamentals of human functioning, psychologically, physiologically and energetically,” he writes on his website. (Very Santa Cruz, right?)

He’s also the temple’s director of events, and sums up the cultural festival as “basically a big party.”

Music is a large part of the party. Lined up to perform are the Qadim Ensemble, a highly regarded S.F.-based band that creates Middle Eastern-inspired music with traditional instruments; the Klezmakers, a Bay Area band that sometimes delves beyond klezmer; and Aliza Hava, a soulful vocalist-guitarist who’ll be teaming up with percussionist Dror Sinai. Beth El’s house band, the Rock Shabbat Band, also will perform.

“Part of the beauty of Temple Beth El is that it’s a Reform Jewish community center headed by two female rabbis,” Abadi said. “We’re LGBT friendly, and we have outreach events in which we engage with social justice and interfaith groups.”

Also included in the festival will be food for sale at the Lower East Side Deli; items fresh from the temple kitchen will include falafel, matzah ball soup (with a vegan option) and hummus. Nearby, something called the “Bar Mitzvah” will serve up beer and wine.

There also will be a pop-up Jewish museum, a “shuk” featuring Santa Cruz and Bay Area artists, and guided tours of the temple’s sanctuary to learn about its stained glass and other art. For the kids, activities will include storytelling, face-painting, a water slide and bounce house.

“We’re a very progressive community,” Abadi said. “We like to bring together the essence of what makes Judaism the most beautiful, and that to us is family and community. We’re in this together. Let’s all be joyous and worship life together.”

Santa Cruz Jewish Cultural Festival, 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Sunday, June 11, at Temple Beth El, 3055 Porter Gulch Road, Aptos. or (831) 479-3444

Jessica Nemire

Jessica Nemire is a freelance writer.