The laughing and eager crowd of mostly single, Jewish adults were watching the large projection screens at the front of the conference hall, because the on-stage speaker, Rachel Dratch, appeared tiny and barely visible.
Dratch, a spunky and hilarious veteran of Saturday Night Live, got her point across, as did the other speakers on the Main Stage over the three days of the Las Vegas conference, pitching the Jewish Federation in an elaborate promotion of Jewish community involvement.
By the time the curtain closed on Tuesday morning, TribeFest II seemed like it was a success.
TribeFest, a conference for Jews in their late 20’, 30’s and 40’s, was held for its second year in Las Vegas. Vegas is a town that everyone loves for conferences because even if the conference is boring, there are myriad ways to be entertained and the hotel rooms are to-die-for. For the Jews of TribeFest, Vegas offered a beckoning non-stop night-life to enjoy after a half-day of conferencing.
The conference excitement did not depend solely on Vegas. Organizers and partner organizations crafted a program of break-out sessions that tapped into hot issues in the Jewish community such as sustainability, social entrepreneurship, LGBT, Israel & Zionism, dating, and the upcoming Presidential elections. The entire Monday morning program was devoted to a massive social-action project that brought thousands of books and reading help to students at troubled Vegas schools.
Aside from laughing with Dratch, there were more tears, laughter and inspiration to be found on the Main Stage. A team of lay leaders and staff selected the speakers with a strategy in mind—to underscore the TribeFest narrative of Jewish identity and how attendees can impact their community, do more, and give back, especially within a Jewish and Federation context.
TribeFest presented inspirational speakers such as Talia Leman (age 16) the CEO and a founder of RandomKid; Rochelle Shoretz, a two-time breast cancer survivor, who founded Sharsheret; and Jonathan Greenblatt, founder of Ethos Water, which provides drinking water to impoverished children. Many of the inspirational speakers shared stories of overcoming illness and personal adversity, in addition to their connections to the Jewish community. They also featured community and social entrepreneurs on the massive stage such as Jordan Wolfe from CommunityNEXT in Detroit, and Shoshana Boyd Gelfand, the Director of JHub in London.
I asked many participants about their level of current involvement in the Jewish community. While only the Federation surveys will be able to tell exactly, anecdotal evidence suggests that most of the participants are engaged in some way with their Jewish communities back at home. There were also many age-appropriate, Federation fundraisers, programmers, and lay leaders, in addition to Jewish organizational professionals who were there to participate and present. It is the hope of organizers that those already involved with the Federation will bring back enthusiasm from TribeFest and previously un-engaged participants will be more likely, in the future, to become engaged in local activities.
Sunday and Monday programming culminated with a mash-up of dinner, drinks, music and a shuk of Jewish organizations and initiatives from everywhere. Ethiopian crafts, and Israeli High-tech projects were present along with groups like Israel Forever, Nefesh b’Nefesh, AEPi, and Repair the World. Rabbinical seminaries also had booths. Relatively obscure but eminently talented Israeli acts, reggae band Hatikvah 6 and rocker Aya Korem, were a huge hit in addition to American hip hop artist Kosha Dillz, and the Israeli American band Moshav.
TribeFest participants were fortunate to be joined by Sheldon and Miriam Adelson whose company owns the Venetian. The Adelsons participated on Sunday and Monday and made themselves available to speak with participants for nearly two hours at Sunday’s Mashup.
There were other gatherings on the periphery of TribeFest. A leadership track, a rabbinical track, and some independent parties. Jewlicious and another event organizer, E-3 from Denver, created a huge sensation with a cocktail party replete with DJ and extravagant drinks, in one of the hotel’s finest 8,000 sq foot Chairman Suites.
One of the most memorable moments for me came towards the end of TribeFest. I found myself laughing with 200 other participants at one of the worst on-line dating profiles in the history of Jewish online dating, which was being displayed as an example of how-not to create an online persona. The room, full of single Jews, many of whom with tales of woe and disappointment from the dating experiences among their tribe, offered advice to the speaker about how to make the profile better. And this only made the audience laugh more.
The primary motivations behind getting Jews to Vegas for TribeFest were opportunities to socialize with other Jews and the attractions the city offers. But the primary message they carried away was not one of hedonism and excess. Most came away embracing the Federation’s mission to help Jews in need, Israel, and to serve as dedicated members of the tribe.
The organizers were clearly interested in how many participants took advantage of the subsidized stays in Las Vegas to conference and how many to party, after facing criticism from some about last year’s event. Event participation was recorded for each person by tracking their conference badge via RFID, a wireless non-contact system that uses radio-frequency electromagnetic fields to transfer and store data. Among the key things that JFNA wants to learn are which issues resonated most deeply with participants to help shape future events, and how to use data on individual participants’ interests to help connect them with programs in their communities.
TribeFest is the best thing going for JFNA — a significant organizational and communal accomplishment for the largest charitable network in the Jewish world. So while participation on a national level at their annual General Assembly convention is down, and Federations around the country are downsizing, TribeFest’s 1,500 delegates is more that last year’s participation and shows no sign of slowing down.
Taking off my observer hat for a moment: TribeFest, like Limmud and Jewlicious Festival, has my backing. We need many more creative efforts to bring Jews together for the purposes of connecting with one another, becoming connected to and inspired about Jewish community, and, yes, partying with fellow Jews.
Our people — and especially those in their 20’s and 30’s — sorely need these experiences as part of their Jewish identity. The number of young Jews around the country eager for opportunities for Jewish connection is huge.
Rachel Dratch, herself of TribeFest participant age, told me, “TribeFest feels very community oriented…. It’s nice to plug back into the Jewish community, I feel a bit unplugged. Its good to recharge and get the Jewish energy going again.” Many others echoed her sentiments.
Building a Jewish future requires us to deploy new and creative ways of engaging our people who are often only partially committed to creating their own Jewish futures. The Jewish Community in North America has tools to engage the Next Generation.
As Sheldon Adelson told me, “Tomorrow’s adult participants are what will connect one generation to the other. These [young] people are the cement. Gatherings like [TribeFest] are the cement to connect generations.”
TribeFest, Jewlicious Festivals, and Limmud, are engaging young Jews by bringing dynamic people together as speakers, teachers, performers, and participants, in intense communal Jewish experiences. These immersive programs help this generation feel proud, feel connected, solve problems, and understand that they are a valued part of the Jewish community.
This approach is working.
Rabbi Yonah is Director of Jewlicious. Follow him on twitter.com/rabbiyonah.