Hava NaGrilla Brings Jews, Non-Jews Together With BBQ

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About 4,500 people attended last year’s Hava NaGrilla festival. Photo provided.

This was Stuart Gordon’s mitzvah come to life. From the steps of Temple Beth Hillel-Beth El, Gordon looked out on the sea of humanity populating the synagogue’s parking lot, enjoying fresh barbecue, craft beer and, most importantly, one another.

“It looked like the lobby of the United Nations,” he said.

After rededicating himself to his Jewish faith about three-and-a-half years ago, Gordon had searched for a way to bring together Jewish people across the religious spectrum — Reform, Conservative and Orthodox.


He had a thought: What’s a better unifier than good food? Gordon’s premonition proved fruitful, as an estimated 4,500 people attended the first Hava NaGrilla Kosher BBQ Charity Festival and Competition last August. He stood for a few minutes on the synagogue steps, soaking it all in. There were Jews of all stripes, and even some non-Jews, too.

“There’s too much division in the world. There’s too much hatred out there,” Gordon said. “We need to form bonds together.”

Gordon’s hoping for even more bonds to be formed when the event returns to the lot of the Wynnewood synagogue on Aug. 26. The festival kicks off at noon and runs until 5 p.m., and tickets are $10/per person and $20/per family.

Gordon was raised Reform in Washington, D.C. He got his medical degree from Thomas Jefferson University in 1981 and settled in Philadelphia with his wife, Marianne, who is Catholic. The couple’s three children — Andrew, Victoria and Philip — were baptized.

Around his 60th birthday, Gordon, an orthopedic surgeon, felt compelled to start reintegrating Judaism into his life. He attended a talk by Rabbi Mike Uram, executive director and campus rabbi at Penn Hillel, and Uram challenged the attendees to brainstorm how to bring different Jews together.

It didn’t take long for Gordon, who said he is a certified barbecue judge by the Kansas City Barbecue Society, to stumble on his idea. Hava NaGrilla, a play on the famous Jewish folk song, Hava Nagila, was born.

“The creation of this festival is me saying thank you to Hashem, [by] bringing our community closer together,” Gordon, 63, said. “It’s part of my spiritual rebirth.”

The signature event of the festival is the barbecue competition. Twenty teams, featuring cooks from St. Louis, Florida, Brooklyn, Queens, South Carolina, North Carolina, Virginia and, of course, the Philadelphia area, will compete starting around 10 p.m. Aug. 25 through 1:30 p.m. the following afternoon. The competition includes four meats — beef ribs, turkey, chicken thighs and smoked brisket. All food cooked during the competition, as well as served during the festival, is under Keystone K supervision.

The festival will have a litany of vendors, including Jake’s Kosher Smoked Meat and Judd’s Memphis Kitchen, selling smoked barbecue brisket, smoked chicken wings, smoked beef ribs and grilled corn on the cob, among others. Nana’s Kitchen will provide vegetarian options. Chef Daniel Israel of Kosher Ctering Philadelphia, LLC will be a vendor at the event, selling BBQ ribs, chicken, shawarma and falafel.

For the older crowd, there will be craft beer and a premium scotch and bourbon whiskey tasting table. Particularly ambitious attendees can partake in the pickle-eating contest or try to stay atop the mechanical bull.

“I believe strongly that all the different sects of Judaism should try to come closer together and, by enjoying a nice day outside, eating brisket and drinking craft bourbon, we can have a stronger community,” Gordon said.

Proceeds from the event will go to the Jewish Relief Agency, which serves more than 6,000 low-income individuals around the Philadelphia area by relieving hunger and strengthening the Jewish community.

“Stuart’s a longtime volunteer for the Jewish Relief Agency and believes in our cause and believes in our mission,” said Michael Neil, JRA’s interim director. “Any time we have the opportunity to engage with the Jewish community in acts of mitzvot is wonderful, and if we can introduce JRA to people who have never experienced it before, then it’s spectacular for both Hava NaGrilla and the Jewish Relief Agency.”

“I’ve always been a connector of people, and I’m doing my best to connect people who are very much alike but act like they don’t know each other,” Gordon said.

At sundown on Aug. 25., the barbecue competitors will gather together for a Havdalah service, led by Rabbi Marc Israel. Then, they will start their grills. And they will cook. 

jneedelman@jewishexponent.com; 215-832-0737

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