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Feeling the Burn: An Insider's Perspective of Midburn, Israel's Version of Burning Man

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This article is featured in the July 2016 edition of The Slice, a monthly digest that offers news, stories, ideas and opportunitieswith a Jewish twist. Below, Sara Ivry chats with Giora Israel, Head of Strategic Relations for Midburna five-day regional offshoot of Burning Man in Israel's Negev desert where thousands of people gather to engage in artistic self-expression and community building. In addition to being a member of ROI Community, Giora is a DJ, event producer and cultural entrepreneur, focused on promoting creative initiatives that challenge social and cultural paradigms.

There are two kinds of people in this world: “Burners”—people who have trekked to the desert to make art and express themselves among thousands of peers—and everyone else. Burners, for those who’ve been on a media blackout for at least two decades, are devotees of Burning Man, the annual temporary encampment constructed by participants in Black Rock City, Nevada every summer.

Photo credit: Yair Garfinkel

They come from all walks of life, guided by a mandate to be radically inclusive of every person and of every way in which people choose to express themselves. In this magical, carnival-like temporary city, there are no barriers between living quarters and where art and performances are made. There is no wall between performer and observer. Suffused with a sense of fellowship and warmth, there is a guiding spirit of openness and togetherness.

When he first heard about that spirit, 34-year old Giora Israel—cultural entrepreneur, event producer and now the head of strategic relations at Midburn, a regional offshoot of the festival—promised himself he’d get to Nevada to experience the good vibes firsthand. That was 15 years ago. A cousin who attended Burning Man after spending the summer working at a Jewish camp in San Francisco had sung its praises.  

“There was something about the look on his face, the shine in his eyes when he talked—it seemed really special and it was something I want, an objective I need to reach some time in my life,” Israel said on the phone from the home he shares with his wife, Hadas, a cellist. Their house is in Neve Shalom, a village between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv where Palestinians and Jews live together.

It took a few years, though, until Israel got to experience it for himself. “A good friend from California was visiting and he said, ‘I’m going to Burning Man next week.’ And I said, ‘Really?’ And he said, ‘You want to come?’ and I bought myself a ticket, and immediately six other friends from Jerusalem joined in and we just gathered, clueless, for this adventure.”

Together at Burning Man, they created a space they named Lev Camp. “The slogan was, ‘Lev Means Heart.’”

The trip was transformative.

Also a DJ, Israel brought music to play and to dance to. “It was a life changing experience,” he said.  “I was a part of an experience where 50,000 people lived together in complete harmony and respect and acceptance of each other. It’s really a place where each of us can be whatever he or she dreams to be and society around you accepts it and encourages you to be who you truly are. And the feeling of being part of that experience—not reading about it or watching a YouTube video, but physically being there—just became part of my DNA. I felt soaked in it.”

Having been soaked, Israel was committed to making Burning Man attendance not a once-a-year vacation from his regular existence, but to incorporating its ten principles—from self-reliance to community building to zero waste—into his life, every moment of every day.

“It really changed the way I look at what we can achieve in humanity,” he said. “I was trying to bring that vibe and essence back with me. A lot of what I did as a producer was art and nightlife and forming communities that are very inclusive, so it was a big part of what I was involved in here in Israel.”  

Photo credit: Ilanit Turgeman

His work in the arts, community-building and social change in his homeland coincided with the emergence of regional Burning Man offshoots (there are now 65), which strive to create spaces for art, self-expression, and progressive, change-oriented social movements. In effect, as Israel tells it, the Burner movement and Midburn and all the other related events are infused with Jewish values of tikkun olam—repairing the world—establishing harmonious places where people coexist peacefully and happily, and committing to leave the world in better shape for the next generation.

Midburn first launched in Israel in 2014. There are year-round, community-based events, but its summit—or meet-up—takes place near the Shavuot holiday in the Negev desert outside of Kibbutz Sde Boker, where David Ben-Gurion retired.

 

Last year, Giora Israel got involved. As he tells it, municipal police were reluctant to issue Midburn a license to hold the event because they didn’t understand the concept—that participants weren’t there to observe others performing. They weren’t there as consumers. The attendees were also the makers, the doers, the performers, the change-agents. Having done his army service as a policeman, Israel was enlisted, along with others, to help navigate this licensing roadblock on behalf of the Burners. This advocacy team eventually won their battle and helped produce a successful festival. After that, Giora Israel became a full-time part of the project.

This year Midburn hosted 8,200 people, including 1,000 who produced the event. The demand for tickets was three times larger than what Midburn organizers wanted to issue—because they want to grow organically and responsibly, Israel explained. Participants came from all over the world to what has quickly become the second most successful Burning Man event, after AfrikaBurn, outside of Nevada. What’s more, outside of the United States, Israel is home to the world’s second-largest Burner creative community, numbering 20,000.

Though it’s not a religious event, this year there was, Giora recalled, a Shabbat dinner (funded by the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation) which more than 200 people joined. They “came and ate and we bought challah and we did Kiddush and everybody was dressed in white and it was quite an exciting experience,” he said.  “Shishi (Friday) night is when we burn the effigy and the possibility of burning your old self. There’s this whole concept of ‘let go of who you think you are and enable yourself to be who you are at this moment, at the Shabbat.’ Each of us had his or her own intention and it made this unbelievable impact. It was really a magical moment.”

To Giora, there’s a connection between Midburn’s rapid success and Jewish ideals. “There is a lot of resemblance between the philosophy behind Burning Man and Jewish tradition,” he said. “The whole concept of hospitality, of getting together a camp is a sort of minyan, the brothers and sisters who you go with are part of a spiritual journey.”

In addition, Israel (the country) is very communally-oriented, he added. And then, there’s the entrepreneurial spirit the country is known for. “It’s the start-up nation, after all,” he laughed. More seriously, he observed that Midburn is playing an important role in Israel as a movement that inspires change and good.

“Whether it’s finding acceptance of each other or being patient,” he said, “it’s not an easy time in Israel. It’s tense….and real change can only come if we work together. I look at Midburn as this charger. You go there once a year to get inspired and to participate. And then each of us goes back to our own families and communities and you feel this ripple effect all over Israel of projects that are related to Midburn and influenced by the ten principles, and it’s beautiful.”

“I never thought of where I live as part of my creative process, but every experience you go through is a part of who you are,” he said. “So the idea of me sitting for dinner with my Palestinian neighbor and just talking about life is something very normal now. It became part of my culture and part of who I am.”

The Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation is proud to empower emerging leaders to explore their values, identity and new ways to strengthen their communities. We believe that as we work together to repair the world, it is important to share our diverse experiences and perspectives along the way. We encourage the expression of personal thoughts and reflections here on the Schusterman blog. Each post reflects solely the opinion of its author and does not necessarily represent the views of the Foundation, its partner organizations or program participants.