Survivors of the Nova Music Festival Dance, Honor and Heal

By | Apr 26, 2024
Commemorative display 06:29 of the Nova Festival

On October 7, Hamas terrorists targeted trance music fans at the Nova music festival at the Re’im Kibbutz in the Negev desert near the Gaza border. Of the 3,000 people reported to have been in attendance, 364 lost their lives that day. They make up nearly a third of the 1,200 victims killed on October 7. 

In the months following October 7, many Nova survivors in Israel turned to the trance music community to heal from the traumatic events they experienced that day and to commemorate the victims. Now that the weather is getting warmer and six months have passed, during which Israelis have had time to process what happened, the first signs of a revival in Israel’s vibrant trance scene are emerging.

“Trance culture is not something you can end. You can never put it out,” says Roee Finzi, life-long trance music fan and director of Free People, a docuseries about the relationship Israeli society has with trance culture. “People don’t necessarily dance only when they’re happy…I’ve seen it with my own eyes that people go out and stand on the dance floor and they dance and they cry. So many emotions come out, and it’s good for them. It’s good because they convert these emotions into something better.”

Popularity of trance music in Israel

Electronic dance music (EDM) has permeated Israeli culture for more than 30 years, and Israel has garnered a reputation as being one of the trance music capitals of the world. Incidentally, the recurring Nova festival is the Israeli offshoot of Universo Paralello, a psychedelic trance (“psytrance”) festival that started in Brazil more than 20 years ago. Trance music is a subgenre of EDM characterized by its four-by-four beat and 135 to 150 beats-per-minute, as well as its hypnotizing and consistent beats and melodies. Rave culture is seen by its participants as a subculture where a strong sense of community and belonging is fostered.

According to cultural anthropologist Joshua Schmidt, psychedelic trance music was brought to Israel in the late 1980s after middle-class Ashkenazi Jews were introduced to psychedelic dance culture in Goa, India, during their travels abroad following their required military service. Since then, the rave scene in Israel has grown on par with rave culture in the Americas, Europe and Asia. “Israel is a society that’s inundated by this music. You hear it in public arenas and public spheres, and also in private spheres. You hear nuances to the music depending on which culture it’s being attached to,” Schmidt says. “The music is present across all sectors of Israel.” 

EDM parties range from living room gatherings to huge public spectacles, such as Pride events in Tel Aviv. They can occur anywhere at any time, but trance-dance parties most often occur outdoors in nature and are often only promoted by word-of-mouth. “When the politics, the religious debates, and all the different perspectives of Israeli life are put to the side, you know what Israelis like to do? Dance,” says American writer and entrepreneur Chloé Valdary in a video produced by the Jewish media company Jewish Unpacked

Israel has also produced many famous producers, including trance DJs Erez Eisen and Amit Duvdevani, who formed the psychedelic trance duo Infected Mushroom in 1996 and have since become prominent names in EDM worldwide, earning a place on DJMag’s esteemed yearly Top 100 DJs list on more than one occasion. Avi Shmailov, known by his stage name Astrix, is another big name in the trance music scene and has around 575,000 followers on Instagram and 836,385 listeners per month on Spotify.

According to Schmidt, the appeal of raves for some people is the idea of escapism. However, Finzi says raves are appealing to others because they are a gateway into “the only reality that matters,”  spaces where one’s identity, background and beliefs don’t matter and where everyone is equal. He said that at these parties it doesn’t matter how old someone is, how much money they make or if they have a family. “If you go to these trance parties, you see how people treat each other with tolerance and respect no matter who you are or where you come from.”

This sense of apolitical safety was shattered on October 7. Since then, Israel’s rave community has mobilized to help survivors pick up the pieces and commemorate the victims.

Nova survivors healing from October 7 with their community

Dancing since October 7 has been hard for Nova survivors. Yet according to Finzi, it is the most important thing to do after times like these. “I encourage people all the time to go out and dance,” he says. “This is the most efficient protest that you can create with your own body. This is the way you change the vibe and the energy around you.”

That’s why dancing has been a central component of many of the healing retreats set up for Nova survivors since October 7. In one therapeutic program run by the nonprofit Free Spirit Experience at Kibbutz Hazorea in Northern Israel, Nova survivors participated in dance therapy by dancing around and playing trance music through their headphones. 

“Each of us knew somebody who was [at Nova],” Rami Bader, Free Spirit’s managing director, told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency. “We talked about the trauma these people might have and decided to use our resources to help them.” 

Longtime members of the trance music community and partners Einat Haimovitz and Yiftach Shahar have organized a volunteer-led therapeutic center in their backyard in Sitria, Israel, which is free of charge for Nova survivors and their families. Counseling, art therapy and massage therapy are all offered to the participants. “This is our tribe,” Shahar told The Forward. “If we won’t lift the hand, no one will.”

Outside of Israel, a weeklong healing retreat was held February 6 to 13 for Nova survivors at Camp Ramah in Ojai, California. There were therapy animals on site to provide comfort and emotional support to the 118 survivors hosted at the retreat. The survivors took steps toward healing through participating in counseling, meditation and yoga classes, art sessions, surfing and workshops. On the Saturday night of the retreat they all danced together. 

“Not only was it incredibly fun and amazing for the survivors to dance with their friends, but they felt safe and didn’t have to look over their shoulders,” Karin Hepner, co-founder of Irvine Hebrew Day School and one of the lead facilitators of the retreat, told The Jewish Journal. “Remembering what it feels like to be safe was one of the most remarkable outcomes of the event.”

The Israeli nonprofit Tribe of Nova Foundation, created in the wake of October 7, has also made various efforts to support Nova survivors and bereaved families who lost loved ones at the festival. Across both their Israeli and American fundraising platforms, they have raised more than $100,000 toward commemorating Nova’s attendees, providing emotional and legal support for survivors and funding rehabilitative activities, social events and healing retreats. One of the events put together for survivors was a therapeutic horseback riding workshop back in March that provided emotional support to survivors through animal therapy. On April 17, the Tribe of Nova started hosting weekly social meetings at Menachem Begin Park at Tel Aviv Lake for members of the Nova community.

The presentation of the photos on the party grounds in Reeim

Description: Memorial at the Nova music festival site. Image Credit: Zeev Stein, via Wikimedia Commons.

Revitalizing the rave scene in Israel

While trance raves can happen any time of year in Israel, Schmidt said the parties were put on pause in the weeks following October 7 because ravers were coping with the loss of members of their own community. However, in January, Israel saw its EDM scene start to make a slow comeback.

One of Israel’s first major trance events since October 7, called “Dragonfly,” occurred on January 6 in Modiin Forest in central Israel. One of the organizers of the party, Meitan—who went by his stage name in his conversation with The Times of Israel—said that the timing was not accidental. “Grief counselors say that many people enter the second phase of mourning at around the 90-day mark. So to us, it was the earliest appropriate time to make our statement: No terrorist can stop our music. It plays on.” 

Four hundred people of all ages danced at Dragonfly, which was free to all attendees. “It’s all about lifting our spirits and commemorating our dead.” 

On March 25, the Tribe of Nova hosted an official Purim-themed community day in Tel Aviv for Nova survivors and bereaved family members. During the first four hours, attendees were offered the opportunity to participate in therapy sessions and creative workshops. For the last seven hours, they raved. Dubi Dagan, who goes by his DJ name, Ritmo, was one of the DJs to perform.“Watching the Nova tribe dance and let loose made me realize just how strong and special they are. We will never stop dancing,” he wrote on Instagram.

Commemorating Nova victims

According to Schmidt, a new subgenre of Israeli electronic dance music has emerged since October 7—specifically dedicated to Nova victims and survivors. 

On October 30, Israeli trance music duo All in One premiered their song “Make You Fly,” dedicated to the victims of the Nova music festival. According to their Youtube page, they released this song because of the hundreds of fans sending them messages saying “release music for us, we need you in these moments.” In dedication to the Nova victims, All in One wrote in Hebrew, “So our dear angels, this song is dedicated to you, from our broken heart, from our strong and beloved nation, rest in peace and please—never stop dancing.”

Israeli progressive house DJ Matan Caspi released a song on November 17, 2023, called “Nova Warriors” in tribute to the Nova community. On his Instagram account, he wrote that his new song “is dedicated to the memory of the electronic music community members from Israel and around the world who lost their lives, as well as the survivors of the tragic event at the Nova Festival on October 7, 2023, in Israel.” All profits made from the track went toward supporting survivors and the victims’ families. 

On November 29, a DJ who goes by the name Artifex released a remix of “Clear Test Signal” by Pixel and Space Cat in tribute to Nova. According to Artifex’s Instagram account, he was the last DJ to play the festival just before Hamas attacked, and his “Clear Test Signal” remix was the last song played. On his Instagram post promoting the song, Artifex wrote, “This was the very last track played before everything happened, one that was interrupted before the end, much like the lives of many beautiful souls in our beloved community…I dedicate it to them and to all others whose lives were forever changed on that morning, just as mine was.”

Families of the victims and Nova survivors themselves commemorated their community in a different way by creating several memorials at the Nova festival site and nearby. Photos of attendees who lost their lives on October 7 or were taken hostage by Hamas cover the festival grounds, and the area right outside of the festival is now covered with 364 pine trees planted by the Jewish National Fund in memory of Nova’s victims. One solemn and harrowing memorial includes hundreds of burnt and damaged cars collected from the festival site and stacked on top of each other. These cars were abandoned as attendees made attempts to flee from Hamas. 

In Tel Aviv, an exhibit titled “6:29 AM: The Moment Music Stood Still,” is a recreation of the Nova festival site with real items belonging to survivors and victims on display (6:29 a.m. being the time the music stopped as Hamas started firing rockets into the festival grounds). A sign in the exhibit displays that time, “6:29,” with the words “We will dance again,” a slogan adopted by Israel’s trance community as a promise that they will never stop dancing despite tragedy. The exhibit was created by Nova survivors in Tel Aviv back in December and opened there. On April 21, “6:29” opened to the New York public at 35 Wall Street. 

“We will dance again…Because it’s a part of our healing,” Nova survivor and exhibit organizer Tal Shimony told the hosts of the American Jewish Committee’s podcast People of the Pod. “I believe my friends, who are not with us, are very proud of the Nova tribe, for continuing dancing, for trying to heal and come back to the dance floors.”

Commemorative display 06:29 of the Nova Festival, Pavilion 1 of Expo Tel Aviv (Exhibition Grounds) - War of Iron Swords, Israel Winter 2023

Description: Display at the 6:29 exhibit commemorating the victims of the massacre at Nova festival. Image Credit: Chenspec, via Wikimedia Commons.

Top image: The 06:29 commemorative display of the Nova Festival in Tel Aviv. Credit: Chenspec, via Wikimedia Commons.

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