One of the largest outdoor Jewish events in recent memory took Philadelphia’s first organized suburb by storm this week with a central bonfire that lit up a section of the city’s northern sky.

More than 600 people attended the third-annual Lag B’Omer Bonfire and Music Festival organized by the Jewish Center of Northern Liberties, one of Philadelphia’s newest Chabad-Lubavitch centers. Feasting on roasted marshmallows and grilled hotdogs, and dancing to the Chasidic-inspired chords of the Baal Shem Tov Band, the crowd of mostly young professionals also took part in an improvisational drum circle.

“It is amazing to see so many Jews together,” remarked Michael Zlotnick. “This is a nice, fruitful occasion for young and old, and I would definitely come again.”

Celebrated on Monday night and Tuesday this year, Lag B’Omer marks the anniversary of the passing of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, the mystic sage credited with authoring the foundational Kabbalistic text of the Zohar. Before his passing, he instructed his students to celebrate the day as heralding the dissemination of the Torah’s esoteric teachings.

In modern times, the Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, of righteous memory, encouraged communities everywhere to hold parades and other large gatherings as a demonstration of Jewish pride.

“It was really inspirational to have this group of people just having fun being Jewish together,” said Rabbi Gedaliah Lowenstein, co-director of the Jewish center. “It felt like we were one with all the people celebrating Lag B’Omer all over the world.”

More than 600 people attended this year’s Lag B’Omer bonfire in Philadelphia. (Photo: Daniel Grodnitzky)
More than 600 people attended this year’s Lag B’Omer bonfire in Philadelphia. (Photo: Daniel Grodnitzky)

Philadelphia’s hip and funky, up-and-coming neighborhood of Northern Liberties has the distinction of being the first of the City of Brotherly Love’s suburbs to sprout in the late 18th century. At one point it was the center of industry north of downtown, and today draws an eclectic mix of artists and young professionals with several redevelopment projects. Lowenstein and his wife Shevy founded the Jewish center three years ago.

Among a catalog of events that include synagogue services, Torah classes and a bowling league, the annual bonfire has proved to be the most popular. This year, as the flames died down, the crowd took their party indoors as the Kabbalah Dream Orchestra played.

“Feeling one with the community” is what draws so many people, stated Lowenstein. “This bonfire is an event where people can celebrate and enjoy without pressure. It’s both a recreational activity and an inspiring evening.”