A “grassroots” community Lag Ba’Omer celebration drew 400 people to Highland Park for food, lively klezmer music, children’s games and activities, adult learning sessions, and a traditional bonfire.
The May 22 event in Donaldson Park was coordinated by the Mekor Chaim Steinsaltz Ambassadors, young Israeli educators spending time in the area under the auspices of the New York-based Aleph Society.
Despite unseasonably cold weather and overcast skies, there was nothing but warm words of praise for the holiday festivities, a marked contrast to a March community Purim carnival, which became mired in synagogue politics.
That event, proposed by the Steinsaltz Ambassador, ended up being sponsored by nine Orthodox synagogues in Highland Park, Edison, East Brunswick, and New Brunswick — but not the Highland Park Conservative Temple-Congregation Anshe Emeth, whose members felt slighted.
The fallout from that event spawned Ahavat Achdut B’Highland Park, an interdenominational community unity effort that sponsors a bridge-building Shabbat activity each month. In April the group met to recite the traditional blessing over the first blossoming fruit tree of the spring.
While some synagogues promoted the Lag Ba’Omer event in bulletins and from the bima, they otherwise stayed out of the planning or sponsorship.
“This was a true community-wide event with no shuls involved,” said Steinsaltz Ambassadors director Rabbi Shmuel Greene of Highland Park. “We showed it’s possible, and here’s the way it can work: no politics, no shuls, just the community coming together. It was really just a grassroots effort by people in the community.”
Even the learning sessions on different topics, which were held every 30 minutes during the three-hour event, were conducted by community lay leaders, he noted.
Greene said, “This is what the Steinsaltz Ambassadors are all about, getting the community to think in a different way and take ownership of its Jewish journey. Obviously, there are different shuls with different philosophies, which is why there were no shuls on our flyer.”
Lag Ba’Omer, the 33rd day of the counting of the Omer — which takes place from the second night of Passover to Shavuot — is, according to the Talmud, the day that marked the end of a plague that killed 24,000 of Rabbi Akiva’s students.
As volunteers cooked hamburgers and hot dogs for the celebrants and a long line of children got free popcorn and cotton candy, other youngsters played tug-of-war, did arts and crafts, and played games. The klezmer group Tsu Fil Duvids, provided an upbeat backdrop.
“This is a great event,” said Nate Kean of Highland Park. “Everybody from the community seems to have joined us today. We have music, activities, and good times. What more could you ask for on Lag Ba’Omer?”
Benji Dessau, 13, of Edison said he was having fun playing sports and was happy to see “everyone having a good time.”
Keith Jaffe of Highland Park said he was drawn to the event by the shiurum (Torah lessons) and the chance “to learn and be enlightened with my community.”
As he danced around the bonfire, Steinsaltz ambassador Avner Segal added, “It is amazing. There are many more here than I expected. We have food and we have great spirit.”