26 December 2012

Tribefest 2012

With other rabbis at Tribefest
With 2012 almost over, I realized I hadn’t yet written about one of the most memorable events I experienced this year. Nine months ago, I attended the second ever Tribefest in Las Vegas and it was a great time. I remember thinking on the drive back, that it was sad to think that the event was already over, seemingly almost as soon as it had begun (especially since I had been looking forward to it for a while). However, another person in the car pointed out that there was so much going on that it seemed like it had lasted a whole week and not just the few days it took place. 
A.J. Jacobs speaking hilariously in the opening "main event"
      TribeFest 2012 was the second such event produced by the Jewish Federations of North America (JFNA), with TribeFest 2011 preceding it, and, as much as it would be great for it to occur next year, it was announced recently that the next one will take place in 2014. But even though it was only the second such event, anyone there could tell it was well done, thought-out, and it had a sizable budget to match.  
     According to Jackie Menter, who wrote an article describing the first such Tribefest,
TribeFest is part of a profound shift in philosophy at JFNA toward engaging young adults in their 20s and 30s. Now, more than ever, a top priority at JFNA is outreach and engagement to maintain a steady flow of vibrant young Jews into the Federation movement. “JFNA has moved away from leadership development as a single agenda item,” Katz explains. Rather than jumping into leadership development, the new approach focuses on first attracting and engaging potential young leaders—a step in the process that Federations didn’t really have to work hard at in the past.
She continued: "JFNA realized that without the steady flow of new young adults being inspired to become Jewishly involved, the future of Cabinet, and Federation itself, would be bleak."  Basically, in order to have committed donors to the Jewish Federations, Jews need to not only understand what the Jewish Federations are and do, but also to understand the need and importance of giving to them and supporting them.  But, in order to do that, they need to appreciate the work of the Federations, which results from the appreciation and understanding of Jewish life and helping out one's fellow Jews.  However, before even that is reached, one needs to want to be involved in Jewish life and like being Jewish.  Thus, the work in reaching out to young adults: if these young adult Jews aren't connecting with Jewish life and/or Jewish Federations, it does not spell out a great future for Jewish Federations.  Thus, Tribefest is one such manifestation of this effort: exciting young adult Jews about Jewish life. 
With some other Long Beach folks
     The venue for Tribefest 2012 was the Venetian Conference Center, which was a very nice place and most of the attendees stayed in the attached Palazzo, which was also quite nice (and for all the people who had never stayed there before, were sure to look into staying there again and telling their friends about it). We've stayed there before, so we knew what to expect, but for those who hadn't been there before, were pleasantly surprised (it's amusing just to think about all the Jews who show up at a Jewish convention and are stifled in their complaining about the accommodations(!)).
Moshav Band performing one night during dinner
     Most of the elements of TribeFest were three: plenary sessions (which they called "main event" sessions), break-out sessions, and meals. There were also receptions and a service project, where attendees could read to young elementary school students. Of course, at nighttime, there were some parties, etc.   
      In the lunches, they had food, etc.; during dinners, they had musical performances on-stage along with booths of sponsoring organizations while dinner was served with open bars with quality spirits (vodka: Grey Goose, gin: Bombay Sapphire, tequila: Patron, Scotch: Glenlivet, Bourbon: Maker's Mark, etc.), which made for a great evening atmosphere.  What was really nice about the dinner schmoozing time was that it was a nice way to end the evening's activities as part of Tribefest, while allowing people plenty of time to go out and experience Las Vegas for the night.  Well done!
     In the break-out sessions, there were four time slots that offered ten different options as part of individual tracks. One of the tracks that was new was the clergy track, which was designed for rabbis and cantors. Although I initially was going to attend all four clergy track sessions (being a rabbi), I decided that the first couple ("Federations and Clergy: An Important Relationship" and "The Clergy's Voice") seemed lame, so I went to "Generation Change: How to Occupy Your (Jewish) Community Now!" and "NextGen in the Shark Tank" instead.  
David Cygielman, Miryam Rosenzweig and Stephen Hazan Arnoff
Shark Tank presentation with Sarah Lefton
      The first of these was really interesting, in which we got to hear from Stephen Hazan Arnoff of the 14th Street Y, David Cygielman of Moishe House, and Miryam Rosenzweig of NextGen Detroit speak about their respective organizations, which was great.  For me, Rosenzweig was really enthralling and I was shocked at how vibrant Detroit's Jewish Federation was for young people - that was inspiring to know that Jewish Federations can be relevant, exciting, and vibrant for young Jews!  The "NextGen in the Shark Tank" was okay: it featured organizations that were doing neat stuff, but I think it was mainly for people who hadn't heard of what they were doing, so it wasn't that fascinating for me.  I think the highlight for me of that session was seeing William Daroff tweet while being up on the panel.
     When I did attend the clergy track sessions, the first was  "Engaging those in their 20s and 30s" - no doubt, the perfect place to discuss this topic: amongst rabbis at a conference for 20s, 30s, and young 40s.  While I was expecting a discussion where mostly rabbis could get together and discuss challenges and opportunities with engaging Jews in their 20s and 30s, instead, the rabbis were a minority in the room, with a fair amount of engagement professionals there.  That was a shame - what I tremendously enjoy from rabbi-only conversations is that there is a higher level of discourse and a certain perspective that one seldom gets with non-rabbis. Moreover, the presentation was very synagogue-centric (by someone from Synagogue 3000, which makes sense) and there really wasn't much of a conversation about best practices for rabbis engaging with Jews in their 20s and 30s. So, I came away disappointed from that session, especially since part of the presentation was about how there was a young adults social group that got together and had some interaction with a rabbi and, on occasion, met at a synagogue.  One of the problems of making it synagogue-centric was that 20s and 30s are not only reticent to go to synagogues (unless they are married and/or have children), but that it didn't offer models for rabbis to go out and engage 20s and 30s nor did it offer some suggestions as to content to be discussed with them.  I was greatly frustrated with that session.
With Rabbi Jason Miller, who led "How To Get Our Message Out" session
      The other clergy track session I attended was "How To Get Our Message Out", which was primarily about social media: primarily Twitter, Facebook, and blogging.  It had primarily two groups of people in the room: people who were curious and/or newcomers to social media and those who used it a lot.  The conversation ended up taking place in two spheres: those who were curious asked questions, while those who used it a lot had a separate conversation on Twitter.  I think I was disappointed from the session, because I was hoping it could be about writing op-eds or other ways of really getting our message out there in the public sphere, rather than just social media posting.
      There really weren't many Orthodox/observant Jews there; I mostly saw them gather at davening, but most of those in attendance at the minyanim were the YU presidential fellows (which, by the way, was a good thing on the part of YU to send them, so congratulations to YU for having the vision to expose their fellows to a broader swath of young North American Jewry), which isn't a bad thing, but greatly reflects the lack of Orthodox attendance.  Obviously, one shouldn't expect Haredi, Yeshivish, or Hasidic Jews to be in attendance, but I would have expected more Modern Orthodox to be there.  I wonder what the factors are for the lack of my fellow Modern Orthodox Jews at Tribefest were, but I'm sure it makes for some great conversation....
A bunch of Long Beach folks at Tribefest
     My wife made a great observation: she noted that there was a noticeable lack of fellow Hillel staff.  This is particularly striking since not only are most Hillel staff members are perfectly situated in this age demographic, but they are also interested in the Jewish community.  Moreover, they could network with other young people serving in the Jewish communal world and the energy would have been perfect for them.  What serves to make this lack of Hillel staff attendance even more stark is that Hillel has made a big push for college students to be in attendance at recent JFNA General Assemblies (examples: 2010, 2009, etc.), but somehow the ball was dropped with regard to encouraging Hillel staff to attend JFNA's Tribefest, which would have been really tremendously helpful in recharging one's personal and professional batteries.  Moreover, why restrict it to encouraging Hillel staff?  We actually brought along two of our students to attend and they had an incredibly amazing time!  For future Tribefests, Hillels should be thinking about encouraging their older students and graduate students to attend.
Meeting a fellow tweeter in real life!
    I thought it was great having all of that Jewish energy there, albeit the tribal type, but one knew what one was signing up for.  It was entirely devoid of anything "Jewish" per se, content-wise, but I think that was to be expected.  Sometimes, it's nice to celebrate one's people.  Perhaps that's what also made it more enjoyable: it was certainly a lot less contentious than would it have involved discussions around Jewish content!    Also, there was some great weather – best that I’ve ever been there for, too bad we were mostly inside.  I am not usually given over to complaining about fabulous weather, but since we were inside for the most part, we could have had it any time of the year and, for that matter, it could’ve been anywhere in the country/continent.  Well, except that it wouldn't have had the Vegas excitement.  To be honest, Vegas is THE PLACE to have Tribefest - there's such a wonderful energy and there's always booze (which is great).  However, in speaking with someone else, she actually pointed out that having it in Vegas is strange with the gambling for two reasons: what does it mean that a Jewish organization is having an event take place where a lot of gambling takes place?  And, two, a fair amount of people leave the convention to take part in gambling or go there when not in the convention.  To be honest, I hadn't thought of these considerations (I don't care about gambling; I enjoy Vegas for other reasons).
     Lastly, it was also cool meeting other tweeters, some for the first time in real life and some to catch up with. It was good having parallel twitter conversations with the others there and beyond.  And, apparently, I enjoyed it so much that I ended up being one of the top tweeters there!
     I really enjoyed Tribefest and hope the next one is also another great experience!  It really fulfilled my high expectations :)

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