Monday, April 2, 2012

Travelblog "tribefest"

I just attended tribefest - an even hosted by Jewish Federation of North America (jfna) in las Vegas. The purpose of the event was for young Jews in their 20s and 30s to "connect explore and celebrate"

I was skeptical.

My initial impressions were that this would be a social gathering devoid of any substantive Jewish content, and. Possibly some other deboucherous behavior.  But for a Jewish professional who loves the Jewish world, it was hard to stay away.

Their we're 1400 Jews signed up 9 from Omaha, and there were going to be a bunch of Jewish professionals and fellow Jewish bloggers in attendance who I really wanted to meet in person. So I signed up.

In case anyone from my Shul is reading this I want everyone to know - no Shul money was used to send me to this event. I came out of my own curiosity so I paid my own way. I have a professional development budget that allows me to attend conferences that will contribute to what I do as a Rabbi, but I was not sure that this would be that kind of conference.

I arrived Sunday night and it seemed that my skepticism was founded. I walked into a big dance party featuring the Jewish rapper "kosher dill" and the Israeli reveal band "hatikva 6" two amazing acts, but not something I viewed as substantive Jewish content.

I did get to meet a number of interesting people including A.J. Jacobs, author of the new York times best seller, The Year of Living Biblically.  I had read his book and found it interesting as an insight into how an obviously very intelligent secular Jew viewed the Torah and the observance of mitzvot.  He is an extraordinary person and I really hope I can maintain a relationship with him. 

I Also ran into my old friend Shmuley Boteach. It seems I run into him everywhere!

After the concert there was a party at some dance club in the hotel. I decided instead to go to bed early.

I was impressed that the schedule included davening at 6:45am on Monday morning. This was only made possible because Yeshiva University brought a small delegation. I am proud that yeshiva university is starting to recognize the importance of engaging with the greater Jewish world. 

After minyan was the community service project. Those members of tribefest who were able to wake up before 9am were brought on busses to local public elementary schools were they read to children for an hour. While many participants slept in from a long night of partying, I was greatly impressed by the number of people who woke up to participate. It said to me that there were many people who did come here looking for a serious Jewish experience.

When the service trip was done, the sessions began. The schedule included blocks of time called "main stage" in which we all gathered in a large auditorium and heard from speakers, and then there were breakout sessions that included panel discussions on different topics, and presentations from different Jewish organizations that were attending. The first main stage was mainly a big push for everyone to get tested for the 19 known Jewish genetic diseases. We heard sad stories from parents of children with some of these diseases. In all cases these were people who had been tested for some diseases, but not for all. One parent, randy gold, made it his personal mission to make genetic testing affordable for everyone. Through his efforts he brought the cost down from over $5,000 to just $25! Through the Victor foundation participants at tribefest could sign up for screening at the conference.

We also heard from 2 cancer survivors who started important organizations. Johnny Imerman started a group called Imerman's angels that connects cancer patients with others who went through the same type of cancer.  He has given support to thousands of cancer patients around the world.
And Rochelle Shoretz who founded Sharsheret a support group for Jewish women with breast cancer.

In the afternoon we heard from a number of speakers, two of them really stood out. Brooke Goldstein and Hadas Malada Mastree.

Hadas is an ethiopian lady who came to Israel as a girl.  During her perilous trek from Ethiopia she contracted malaria and almost died.  She was saved by Israeli doctors and decided that she wanted to become one as well.  When she got older she became a doctor for the Israeli air force and since then she has helped people all over the world.  Her story is too amazing to do justice in a paragraph.  She was one of the most inspiring women I have ever heard in my life.

Brooke Goldstein made a documentary exploring the phenomenon of child suicide bombers in the Muslim world.  She spoke about the terrible indoctrination that occurs and insists that this is the worst type of human rights violation and has dedicated her life to fighting it.

After the main stage I went to a session titled, "The Jewish Vote 2012."  The session featured the head of the Jewish democratic coalition in Washington and the head of the Jewish Republican coalition in Washington.  The most interesting aspect of this session is that there was a screen that featured a twitter feed in the background.  People from the audience could comment on the lecture on real time by tweeting from their phones.  This allowed me and others to actually post comments and questions that the speakers responded to.

The evening activity was another concert by one of my favorite bands in the world, The Moshav Band.  They were amazing.

The next morning I woke up a bit early for minyan.  I was wondering in the hotel when I saw a man holding a talis and tefillin bag. I asked him where he was headed and he said that there was a minyan in the hotel for people who had come for the ASD expo, a consumer goods trade show that was going on in Las Vegas at the same time as tribefest.  I decided I would walk with him and check it out.  As we were walking it occurred to both of us that we looked familiar to one another.  It turns out that he is my wife's parent's next door neighbor from Baltimore.  Small world.

When we got to the room of the trade show minyan I was amazed!  It was a packed room, standing room only, with over 250 businessmen who woke up an hour early to daven to Hashem.  After minyan a large group stayed for another fifteen minutes t learn some Torah together as well. 
What was most amazing to me was that just before minyan was over a man got up to make an announcement.  "I am sure you have all heard the news that ASD has scheduled the trade show next year to conflict with the first night of pesach.  ASD has been in contact with us apologizing for their negligence and trying to make it up to us."  Apparently observant Jews form such a critical group at the trade show that ASD is desperately trying to reschedule to change the date of next years trade show to accommodate the observant Jews who attend. 

After I davened I went back to the tribefest part of the hotel.  Tribefest had scheduled a minyan and I wanted to make sure that they had ten people.  When I got to the part of the hotel with tribefest I saw a guy standing in the hall way between conference rooms who had the look of someone who is trying desperately to find a tenth for a minyan - a look I know well.  He asked me if I would help.  Of course I said.  Then he saw I was holding my own tefilin bag and he said, "oh, you are probably looking for the Orthodox minyan right?"  He was collecting for the non-Orthodox / egalitarian minyan.  He told me that the Orthodox minyan was in a conference room across the hall.  I thanked him and went to check on the minyan I was seeking.  I peeked into the room and saw that they had more than a minyan.

When I saw that was the case I went back to help the other guy make his minyan. 

I think this may have been my first time davening in an egalitarian daily minyan.  I noted a few observations - 1. There was a lot of singing.  This did not appeal to me personally.  I wish I could articulate better why.  I guess one reason is that it seems a bit too campy for my taste.  I just couldn't imagine the room of businessmen at the ASD trade show coming to minyan and singing.  The minyan that I and they are used to has a more adult and professional feel to me.  In my opinion the singing makes it seem like davening is something only done with young children or at camp.
2. There were more women at the so called "non-egalitarian" minyan.  True, a woman can't lead at the non-egal service, but all of the women at the non-egal service seemed capable of leading, which did not seem to be the case at the egal service.  (I could be wrong, this is just an observation)
and 3. at the egal service the conference room chairs were set up by the hotel staff in two separate sections with an aisle down the middle.  All the men were sitting on one side and all of the women were sitting separately on the other. 

When I got to the egal minyan I was actually the 9th person.  We were still missing one.  So I went to the hall to see if I could lend my expert minyan collecting skills to the effort.  I stood with the other guy and we saw a tribebest participant pass buy.  We asked him if he would join us for a few minutes to help us make ten for a minyan.  "I would really rather not."  He said.  "It will only take a few minutes and it would really mean a lot to us."  "Sorry."  He said.  "That is just not my thing."
Fine.  I said.  I can respect that.  On to the next people.  After a few minutes we two women came buy and they made up 10 and 11.  My work was done. 

Some Rabbis may have had an issue with helping out a non-Orthodox minyan.  It is not "my thing" but almost daily there are people who help me at Beth Israel to make a minyan even though it is not "their thing."  I appreciate their help and I felt an absolute obligation to help 9 other Jews join to talk to God, even if they did it in a way that I may personally think is incorrect. 

After minyan there were breakout sessions for breakfast.  Their was a Jewish professionals breakfast that I chose to go to.  I met some amazing people there.  Most notable, I met the guy who started started, the largest Jewish social network site on the Internet.  Before the networking began words of welcome were given.  I looked up and the Jewish professional welcoming us was the same guy who turned us down for minyan!  "As Jewish professionals we all know how hard it is to engage young Jews in Jewish activity that is why we all have to work together."  I was outraged.  I wanted to tell him off, or report him to his boss or something to expose this hypocrite!!
I decided in the end to do none of the above.  I am just going to blog about him.
If you are reading this, you know who you are.  Next time, help a Jew out!

The final sessions were also great.  I went to a session given by my new friend Rabbi Jason Miller on how Jewish professionals can use social media.  Loved it!
Then the main stage featured a few more featured speakers including Jonathan Greenblatt, co-founder of Ethos water and special assistant to president Obama and Director of the Office of Social Innovation and Civic Participation (OSICP).  He spoke about how he used social entrepreneurship to start his company and help people all over the world.

Overall I found tribefest very inspiring.  As I mentioned before, I was skeptical going in.  I did not think there would be any significant Jewish content.  And I was right.  There was no substantive Jewish content.  The only time I learned any Torah was davening with the businessmen from the trade show.

But that is not what tribefest was about.  In fact, many of the speakers began their speeches by saying something like, "I am DEFINITELY NOT what people would call a good Jew."  Or they would say something about how they never attended synagogue, were never involved in Jewish organizations, or even Jewish causes. 

The speakers were not invited because they did something Jewish.  They were invited simply because they are Jewish.  In fact, for me tribefest was a really great conference about social media and entrepreneurship featuring some remarkable people who have done remarkable things.
But I would not have been invited to that conference if I was not Jewish.  I would not have gotten such a great deal on the Venetian hotel.  I would not have had the opportunity to meet billionaire hotel mogul Sheldon Adelson. 

After the AIPAC conference I thought that Jewish Federations would lose market share to AIPAC for a number of reasons.  For one, you don't have to be Jewish to join AIPAC and with the rate of intermarriage it seemed that a young interfaith couple could both comfortably be active in AIPAC and not at Federation. 

But the bigger reason I thought AIPAC had an edge was because AIPAC actually stood for something.  You knew why you were going there, to support Israel.  I did not feel that about Federation.  What did they stand for?  Helping local community?  Helping Israel?  Helping Jews around the world?  Everything and yet nothing.  It seemed unfocused and therefore unexciting. 

After tribefest I get it.  Federation does not have to stand for anything.  It is just a network of Jews.  Today social entrepreneurship is trending - so lets focus on some Jews who have done some of that.  If tomorrow something else is popular, no problem.  There are bound to be some prominent Jews doing what ever activity it is.  Find them and pay them to come and speak to us. 

Young Jews will choose to stay Jewish because doing so gives them access to this amazing network.  They will also be more likely to marry Jewish.  In just 3 years tribefest has already produced a number of married couples.  I think this is a much better investment then birthright.  You could probably bring 10 kids to tribefest for the price of one birthright.  And if tribefest continues to bring great Israeli speakers there is a great likelihood that young people will actually be inspired to go to Israel on their own. 

This will not directly promote Judaism, but the more active Jews you have, the more likely it is that they will pursue their heritage as well. 

I learned a great deal about social entrepreneurship from tribefest - something I wanted to learn anyway - and it gave me a good feeling about the Jewish community.  I think others felt the same.

I heard that they are not running tribefest again next year.  That it was too expensive.  I hope that is not true.  I think that tribefest was a great success and I hope some donors think about making it happen next year as well.