The Cosmic Reunion at DAWN

Lonnie Firestone

Beloved holidays have common ingredients. There are familiar melodies, recognizable symbols, and festive meals. Though Shavuot is significant in marking the ancient pilgrimage festival and celebrating the momentous occasion of receiving the Torah, it lacks the endearing traditions that lend others their appeal. Shavuot can be daunting to Jews who feel tentative about Hebrew texts and uncertain around matters of God and faith; after all, the holiday involves an overnight textual study that culminates with prayer and Torah reading at sunrise. 

Reboot’s DAWN: An All-Night Cultural Arts Festival aims to reframe that. Now in its fourth year, DAWN makes Shavuot accessible and even uplifting, not by shelving the intellectual study that is intrinsic to the holiday but by creating multiple portals toward eye-opening ideas.

(DAWN runs Sunday, May 16th to Monday, May 17th, 9pm to 9am ET. To sign up, click here.)

“In my opinion, text study is really about enlightenment,” says David Katznelson, Reboot’s CEO. “It’s about digging deep into a theme. The only twist I made is that we use art and culture as a pathway to having a deep Shavuot experience.”

The strategy in DAWN’s programming is to offer myriad access points—scholarly, artistic, and entertaining—so that all Jews who wish to attend find an offering that engages and stimulates. Among this year’s presentations:

To coordinate DAWN’s presenters, Reboot works in tandem with the Jewish Emergent Network to line up prominent rabbis. Rabbi Sharon Brous, Founding and Senior rabbi of IKAR in Los Angeles, will lead a session this year titled, From Disenfranchisement to Dignity: Equity, Access, and the Beloved Community. Brous, a leader in interfaith dialogue, will share the virtual podium with Reverend Billy Michael Honor of Aspen Institute’s Inclusive America Project and Rabbi Lauren Henderson of Congregation Or Hadash.

In DAWN’s arts and culture vein, Reboot will collaborate with LABA, a collective that fosters work inspired by classic Jewish texts. Alicia Jo Rabins, a composer, musician, poet, and Torah teacher, will lead a session with chef and writer Sonya Sandford, entitled, Labne Cheesecake and Looping Pedals. According to the program description, Rabins and Sandford will explore Shavuot through food, music, and poetry.”

For Rabins, the DAWN festival intertwines Judaism and art in a way that complements her own creative approach. “My practice often involves blending the boundaries between ritual and art,” she says. “I love to draw from traditional Jewish texts and melodies in my artwork and to incorporate my music into Jewish ritual.”

She adds, “There is something very mystical about all of us being able to connect virtually, learning the words of sacred texts and art created by people who lived centuries ago, but whose words and ideas are still vibrating with life.”

This year, as with 2020, the festival will be entirely online—an experience that is quite different from DAWN’s previous incarnations in 2008 and 2010, when the festival was at the CJM in San Francisco and the California Academy of Sciences, respectively.

“I would much prefer being in a space with people,” Katznelson admits. But a virtual DAWN fosters “connection with a lot more people across the world. I hope that in the coming years we’ll find a hybrid model.”

Drunk History of Shavuot from DAWN 2020. Clockwise from top left: Alex Grossman, Rabbi Elliot Cosgorve, Heather Pasternak and Joel Stein.

Finding connections between spirituality and music comes naturally to Katznelson. He came to Reboot with a strong background in music, and, as his role there evolved from participant to board member to CEO, he has advocated for Jewish engagement by way of musical experiences. 

In developing a Shavuot festival, he recognized that blending the arts with intellectual study held great potential. Katznelson easily remembers the conversation that ignited the idea for DAWN, which he co-created in 2008 with Reboot member Amy Tobin.

“I was having breakfast with cofounder Rachel Levin,” he recalls. Katznelson asked her, “’What are some of the big holidays that aren’t really celebrated [as widely]?’ And Shavuot comes up.”

Katznelson sensed that the perception of Shavuot as serious and arduous could be reframed as engaging and creative. “People like staying up late at night and digging into deep, rich topics”, he considered. “This inaccessibility all of a sudden became a major opportunity.”

A key factor to DAWN’s success was making it inclusive to Jews of all backgrounds. “There has to be a radical welcoming,” Katznelson says. “People come to an event like DAWN with all different aspects of Jewish practice or lack thereof. It has to be that if you’re here, you’re part of what we’re doing. If you’re open to the experience, the experience has to be open to you.”

Through that lens, Shavuot transforms into a night of discovery. “The nice thing with DAWN is that you have eleven hours of programming,” Katznelson says, “so if you’re interested, you’ll have a lot to dive into before the night is over and the day comes.”

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