Judaism Unbound Episode 79: Burning Mensch - Joel Stanley

We continue our exploration of Burning Man and potential connections to re-imagining Judaism with an interview with Joel Stanley, who serves as Senior Director of House Programs at Moishe House. Joel has attended Burning Man every year for over a decade. Joel joins Dan and Lex to explore the ways in which Jewish organizations may be able to learn from Burning Man, as well as some of the ways he has sought to do that work in his own context of Moishe House.

(0:01 - 15:45): To begin the episode, Joel Stanley talks about some of the strengths of Burning Man, including its spirit of adventure and its emphasis on emotional growth and exploration. He also looks back at our conversation with Casper ter Kuile and Angie Thurston, including the description they gave of various religious themes that secular organizations are occasionally capturing quite effectively. [1] He argues that Burning Man succeeds in helping its attendees engage with four of those six themes, and he expands on some of its other strengths as well.

(15:46 - 29:10): What role does the outdoors play, in particular, in inducing certain forms of meaning at Burning Man? Does the difficulty of spending extended time outside, including the experience of dust storms, create a shared sense of overcoming hardship that is particularly important to the success of the event? [2] Stanley takes on these question and goes on to discuss the ways in which Jewishness at Burning Man may be successful precisely because it is not the central reason that people are there. [3] Pivoting, he talks about his immersion in Moishe House, first as a resident and currently as a staff member. He gives his thoughts on ways in which Moishe House mirrors Burning Man's radical inclusivity and advocates for that principle to become the norm in other Jewish spaces. [4]

(29:11 - 43:37): Stanley compares and contrasts the role of schedules at Burning Man and in Jewish spaces. Burning Man does have a schedule, but so much of what happens at the event is not part of the schedule -- and that is understood by most to be a good thing. Could Jewish organizations, which frequently schedule every moment of their events, learn from this lack of structure? To close the episode, Stanley calls for Jewish communities to learn not only from Burning Man, but also from other meaningful experiences that are having an impact on large groups of people. [5] [6] [7]


[1] To learn about these six themes from ter Kuile and Thurston, listen to Episode 18: How We Gather.

[2] For an article that looks at the role that hardships play at Burning Man, we recommend "Burning Man Sucks! 10 Reasons to Stay Home" (the title is a bit tongue in cheek -- it's written by folks who attend every year).

[3] For an in-depth look at Burning Man from a Jewish perspective, we recommend the 2013 article "Sleeping in the Dust at Burning Man," written by Ron Feldman and featured in Tikkun Magazine.

[4] Stanley expands on the ways in which Moishe House and Burning Man relate to one another in this talk, entitled "Cross-pollinating Burning Man & Moishe House." You can view it by clicking the video on the left. To learn more about Moishe House in particular, listen to Episode 19 of our podcast, featuring its Founder and Executive Director, David Cygielman.

[5] Stanley cites an article entitled "A Brief History of Who Ruined Burning Man," which looks at the tendency, since Burning Man's beginnings, to cry out in frustration "Burning Man isn't what it used to be!" Read it by clicking here

[6] Stanley refers to an organization called Wilderness Torah a few times in the episode. To learn more about their work, visit WildernessTorah.org.

Image Credit: Oshman Family JCC

Image Credit: Oshman Family JCC

[7] The name of this episode was inspired by an event that has taken place at the Oshman Family JCC in Palo Alto each of the past two years. Learn more about it in this article, entitled "Palo Alto JCC turns Burning Man into Burning Mensch," featured in J: The Jewish News of Northern California. Hear more from the director of the Oshman Family JCC, Zack Bodner, in Episode 61: Wandering in the Wilderness (featuring Tova Birnbaum as well) and Episode 66: Jewish? Community? Center?