Shula Mathless

Variances in Practice Set Aside as Jews Unite in Celebration of Shabbat & Music

Summer is upon us. Coats and scarves are swapped for light linens and other easy breezy fabrics (see you next year, puffer). Soy lattes give way to iced coffee, and cravings for soup morph into hypnosis by ice cream truck jingles. Some of my favorite memories involve late summer nights and a feeling of endless possibility, feeling like anything and everything can happen. Tis the season to celebrate summer glory — and there’s no better way to commence warm weather festivities than with a music festival.

SababaFest, a weekend long Jewish music festival, was founded in 2017 by Mendel Sherman and Alter Deitsch to recreate the transcendent feeling of a music festival in an atmosphere that celebrates Judaism and the diverse and unique way the religion impacts its followers. The mission statement of Sababa is, “to unite, inspire, and network the tri-state Jewish community, through the love of Shabbat, song, and music. Sababa Music Festival targets young adults/professionals to facilitate an arousal of the Jewish spark within each and every one of us in a new, fun, modern, and meaningful way.”

I sat down with Alter in Brooklyn to discuss the inspiration as well as what’s next for Sababa.

How did you and Mendel meet?   

Mendel and I always seemed to meet around music. I first met him at a concert in Philly, and then at the Camping Trip in 2015 — a large gathering of Jews in celebration of each other and music. It was the end of the festival, and everybody had extra meat from the weekend. Mendel and I both set up our grills, and cooked up 100 people’s beef! It was a beautiful moment of everybody sharing their bounty with each other, while we listened to the last musical acts play in the light rain. I didn’t really know him so well at the time, but we leveled with each other over the idea of going a little further to help the people around you, and contribute to an environment of togetherness. And BBQ!

What motivated you to start Sababa Festival?

I’ve been going to music festivals and experiencing these larger than life moments. However, there was always something there to remind me that I wasn’t in my place. I could never eat with any of the new friends I’d met, and I find that food is a real unifier. Though I observe Shabbat, the events were not Shabbos friendly, and I had to miss out on several of the largest events at these festivals. And while it was nice meeting thousands of people from around America, I found myself wishing again and again, that there were Jews there who would get the joke I wanted to throw into the conversation, or with whom I could sing the songs that touch me the deepest. But there was never anyone that would fully understand me, because there was no place for Jews to get together in the context of celebrating music. So we made one.

What was the atmosphere like at Sababa in the past two years?

The first word that pops into my head is “achdus”(unity). We really had quite a diverse group of Jews all hang out together for Shabbat, and everybody brought their flavor. You could hear different style songs sung at Shabbat meals, see different modes of dress honoring Shabbat, and meet people who have both a very similar yet different background to your own.

But the best thing I found regarding Shabbat, was that though some Sababers observed Shabbat and some did not, everybody respected each others’ decisions and right to be who they are. Non-observers kept their phones away in common Shabbat areas like the meals and davenings (prayer service); and no Shabbat observers told anyone playing music at their own campsite what they can and cannot do. Everybody respected everyone, and it was beautiful.

How does music play a role in your life?

I love singing in large groups, jamming with my buddies, and going to shows. In all three of these circumstances, I access a space inside of me that feels timeless and untethered. Like that is the only moment that ever was. And, surprisingly, sharing that experience with others is super scalable. You can have 20,000 people experiencing that same energy vibration all at the same time, and that shared experience brings people together. I wanted to share that with my brothers and sisters.

What was one personal highlight for you?

At the beginning of Sababa the second, we had a bar mitzvah for someone who put on tefillin and was called up to the Torah for the very first time. There were about 15 people gathered, and it felt like we were witnessing a spiritual birth, on holy ground, where all of the elements join forces to form the perfect moment.

How has running Sababa influenced your view of Judaism?

Jews — at least millennial Jews — wait til the last second! Seriously people, make your plans and get your tickets earlier! I’m just kinda kidding. In truth, I’ve made several observations about this particular Jewish community, and it really has added some nuance to my understanding about an East Coast, Orthodox Affiliated Jew, between the ages of 25 and 35. We like to party, but we don’t get too wild; we love to sing the songs of our childhood, and we sound great together.  So you’ll see someone on their phone, but singing zmiros (Shabbat songs of delight); someone making jokes that relate to the week’s parsha; or you can meet your new best friend while lighting Shabbos candles, even if it’s the first time you’ve lit candles in years. Whether we are observant or not, our generation is able to appreciate and enjoy Judaism; and despite where we come from we are all the same.

On a spiritual level, we all want to experience connection. Regardless of our views and feelings about G-d, internally, we know that one of the best ways for us to connect with each other is through Judaism.

Judaism’s rich breadth of literature and ritual, allows for an innate shared language, a force from which we can continue connecting with each other again and again, constantly finding fresh perspective within our views. To connect to Judaism is to touch and feel it, and Judaism offers multiple opportunities to do just that. At Sababa, and we want to take advantage of every moment.

What is your vision for Sababa in the coming years?

I’d like to see Sababa grow to include wider swathes of the Jewish world. And hopefully, with time we’ll be a large enough group to sustain three stages simultaneously, with the best music the Jewish world has to offer. One stage will be electronic, one for American style bands, one for Israeli style bands. Another goal is to have the bonfire/kumzits stage going all night long.

My hope is that we can all come together for a beautiful Shabbat, and experience the bond of nationhood. To live our brightest truths, in accordance with our traditions, and bring hope and joy into this world.

Sababa will take place JUNE 20-23 in Honesdale PA. For more information please visit

About the Author
Shula is a fashion enthusiast, she is passionate about joy, mental health and togetherness. She believes that each person has a unique light to share with the world.