JACKPOT!: 1,500 young Jews hit Vegas for TribeFest

las vegas  |  When the final head count was in, 1,516 young Jews were gathered in the desert. There was dancing, there was rejoicing. There were panels on social justice and on finding funding for startup ideas. And there was blackjack.

The desert was the Mojave Desert, and the gathering spot was Las Vegas. Jews from across the United States and Canada descended on Sin City March 25-27 for TribeFest, an annual confab for 22- to 45-year-olds that has gained traction and generated a lot of buzz in its two years.

Run by the Jewish Federations of North America, TribeFest 2012 was a patchwork of presentations on culture, religion, education and volunteerism. And contrary to the “What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas” slogan, organizers of TribeFest hope the lessons learned at the Venetian Resort Hotel Casino make their way back into the participants’ various communities.

Well, most of the lessons, anyway — except for whether to hit on 12 if the dealer has a five up, or how to make a carrot cake martini.

TribeFest 2012 featured representatives from more than 90 organizations, including some of the Bay Area community’s rising stars (including G-dcast, Keshet and UpStart Bay Area). The three-day event was held at the glitzy Venetian, owned in part by multi-billionaire Sheldon Adelson, a major funder of Birthright Israel (and of Newt Gingrich’s bid for the Republican presidential nomination) who was on hand at a few of the get-togethers.

It was intended as a meeting of minds — a chance for young Jewish leaders to connect, brainstorm and forge new partnerships. And, of course, to bring more young Jews into the fold: spiritually, educationally and/or financially. Collectively, local federations contributed tens of thousands of dollars to help offset the retreat’s $500 individual registration fee (not including hotel accommodations) — a choice JNFA leaders apparently see as a worthy investment.

“I think everyone in this room can give $18 a year,” Marty Paz, incoming campaign chairman for the Jewish Federation of Las Vegas, told JTA while surveying a conference hall at TribeFest. He added that TribeFest could be used as a vehicle by which to cultivate a “habit of giving” among its participants.

Seeing things another way, TribeFest co-chair Jason Rubinoff said, “This wasn’t about money. This was about dialogue, about having challenging conversations and then taking new ideas home and paying them forward.”

“Saturday Night Live” alum Rachel Dratch addresses the TribeFest crowd, saying, “I’m in the desert, I’m with the tribe and I’m home.” photo/courtesy of jfna

Which take to believe?

It didn’t really feel like a giant fundraiser. And these young Jews didn’t seem like they’d come to hear about philanthropy options. Throughout the lineup of panel discussions, interactive workshops, social events and talks (including an address by former “Saturday Night Live” cast member Rachel Dratch at the opening session), a few questions hung in the air.

Who were these people? What would draw a young, not particularly observant Jew here? Should it have been a surprise that so many people brought skintight, sequined club wear? And what exactly did the JFNA expect to get out of this?

“I think the federation is realizing that it has to figure out how to tell its story to young people if they’re going to buy into it. I think TribeFest grew out of that, ” said Sarah Lefton, founder of G-dcast, the San Francisco–based nonprofit production company that uses storytelling and new media to increase Jewish literacy.

Lefton, who attended as a guest of the Jewish Federation of the East Bay, was among the stars of the show. G-dcast overwhelmingly won the hearts of audience members (and a check for $1,000) at a panel titled “NextGen at the Shark Tank.” In that session, leaders of innovative programs for young adults took turns pitching their visions to a panel of expert investors in a competition modeled on ABC’s  reality show “The Shark Tank.”

Lefton also headed a session in which participants learned how to pitch Jewish stories “Hollywood-style,” but it was the “Shark Tank” panel that shed light on the demographic makeup of these 1,516 young Jews.

During a presentation to the expert investors, the founders of the Boston-based website InterfaithFamily.com argued that supporting non-Jewish wives, husbands and partners of Jews was crucial to promoting Jewish community. Ostensibly to prove a point about the need for such services, managing editor Benjamin Maron asked for a show of hands from people who were either married to or dating a non-Jew, or who were raised in interfaith families.

Attendees listen to presentations of innovative ideas in a session titled “NextGen at the Shark Tank.” photos/courtesy of jfna

Surprisingly, out of a room of approximately 150 people, fewer than 10 raised their hands.

“I thought the fact that so few people raised their hands was extremely interesting, very telling,” said Toby Rubin, founder of UpStart Bay Area, which provides support and helps increase visibility for Jewish social entrepreneurs.

“That opened up a whole other question for me,” Rubin continued, “which was: Knowing what we know about intermarriage rates, if that’s who’s inside this room, who’s outside?”

The concern: that TribeFest had failed to attract young unaffiliated Jews, those who were not already involved in Jewish community endeavors.

“No, I don’t think people here [at TribeFest] are representative of the American Jewry at-large, in this age group,” said Shawn Landres, co-founder and CEO of the Los Angeles–based Jewish “thinkubator” Jumpstart.

“I think that matters, and I think that doesn’t matter. Is TribeFest an outreach event? Sure, in part. But fundamentally, I think it succeeds because it’s reinforcing these access points that federations are providing in their local communities, and giving people a chance to have a sense of national connection.”

Landres noted that this very same weekend, the Republican Jewish Coalition was meeting in Las Vegas and J Street was holding its national convention in Washington, D.C.

“I think that just speaks to the incredible diversity of the Jewish community,” he said. “I don’t think there is any one organization that represents all the Jews, and the more opportunities like this, the better.”

It wasn’t necessarily a bad thing, Landres said, that TribeFest seemed to be made up mainly of Jews who were already actively engaged in Jewish life, whether through federations, congregations, Birthright trips or the like.

Still, countered Rubin, new Jewish initiatives remain insular at their own peril. At the conference, she led a “Start-up World Café,” in which participants learned about Jewish startups and other innovative organizations in Europe, Israel and beyond.

“It’s a no-brainer to say that if you want to be an UpStarter, your impact has to go beyond your neighborhood,” she explained. “You look at something like [Berkeley-based] Wilderness Torah, and the essence of what they’re doing is obviously really universal. These are values that are worth people outside our community knowing about.”

Not all those in attendance were active in federation activities prior to TribeFest.

East Bay Jews sent a cohort of 35 people, and even though the group for young Jewish adults is an initiative of the East Bay federation, a majority of them were attending their first federation event, according to coordinator Julia Malkin.

At one of the mash-up events featuring food, dancing and shmoozing, Israeli singer-songwriter Aya Korem performs with her band.

“It was great, in that sense, to have this crazy, intense bonding experience together as first-timers,” she said. “I think everyone came back feeling really energized and excited about what we’re trying to build here in the East Bay.”

Malkin said she understands the challenges the federation world faces when trying to attract people in their 20s and 30s.

“I don’t think it’s that young people don’t want to be active in Jewish life. It’s more that a lot of our traditional models were built on a different reality,” she said. “Synagogue life is family-oriented, and as people of our generation get married later and have kids later … that’s when you start seeing young adults wanting to build something by themselves.” As an example, she pointed to Urban Adamah, a Berkeley Jewish farm school now entering its second year.

The S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation sent 38 participants under the auspices of its Young Adult Division.

“I heard it was a really good way to meet people, make connections in the Jewish community, and since I just moved here, it seemed like a great opportunity,” said Cara Dressler, 27, a San Francisco resident since December. Dressler added that she sees herself becoming more involved with YAD in the coming months.

 The TribeFest menu of programming seemed designed to appeal to a wide range of young Jews.  A participant could attend morning services, chat with Israeli journalist Stav Shaffir about last summer’s social justice movement in Israel over lunch, get tested for genetic diseases in the afternoon, meet with other techies about startup ideas or learn about Kabbalah in the early evening and be done in time for dinner — a big, social affair featuring live music from the likes of Jewish rapper (and occasional Matisyahu opener) Kosha Dillz — before hitting the casino floor.

“It’s basically like JDate live,” said Yair Flicker, a Web developer from Baltimore, referring to the social opportunities presented by this gathering.

To that end, many of the young Jewish leaders of tomorrow enthusiastically took part in less-than-official TribeFest programming up and down the towers of the Venetian and its sister property, the Palazzo.

During the TribeFest service project, a volunteer reads to a student at an elementary school in Las Vegas.

Sure, there were discounts to two swanky nightclubs — Tao at the Venetian and Lavo at the Palazzo — if you showed your TribeFest badge, but there were also packs of attendees roving the casino floors, sipping questionable concoctions out of their TribeFest water bottles, and collecting phone numbers and Twitter usernames with which to communicate information like “Sweet party in suite 34-17, open bar!” There also were a few nighttime fashion choice that bordered on, as Sarah Lefton put it, “upsetting.”

But about five hours later, not long after the sun came up, some 600 of these young adults were on a bus preparing to pass out 4,000 children’s books and read with kids at local underprivileged elementary schools, part of a service project in conjunction with PJ Library.

“[My student] actually ended up reading most of the books in our donation bag to me,” explained Matthew Reiff in a blog entry. The JCF of San Francisco’s online marketing coordinator added: “Although I did need to explain who Sandy Koufax is, and what being a lefty meant in baseball.”

As the conference came to a close, messages flew back and forth on Facebook and Twitter.

“TribeFest 2012 rocked! I met some really cool people and had a blast! This should happen more than once a year!” wrote one participant on the event’s Facebook page. Photos and videos and links to participants’ favorite causes and nonprofits abounded.

Also: “Anyone sticking around tonight who wants to keep the party going?”

“To me, TribeFest is all about what you do afterward,” said Rubinoff, the event co-chair, when asked how one measures success with something like this.

“I met so many new people, and I’ve been hearing from people who left feeling incredibly inspired, so that’s great to hear,” he added. “It’s a question of ‘what do you do with that?’ Do you go home and spread the word about an organization you hadn’t known about? Do you start something yourself?”

Rubinoff said the unofficial plan is for TribeFest — which drew nearly 1,300 people to its first event in 2011, also in Las Vegas, and upped that by about 250 this year — to become an every-other-year event, meaning the next one will likely be in 2014, with a location yet to be determined.

“It’s interesting, though, because there’s so much momentum now, and so much demand for it,” he said. “Several people have told me that if we don’t do it next year, someone else will.”

Clearly, TribeFest is still evolving. But many have suggested that, at its core, TribeFest is a sign of the federation system realizing it needs to be flexible if it’s going to survive. And according to many, that’s a sign of a success in and of itself — glitzy hotels and nightclub discounts aside.

“I think that the federation is seeing that it needs to communicate with young people, get them to understand exactly why it’s such an amazing thing. It’s a 100-year-old innovation,” said Lefton.

“It’s still important, and it’s still effective, and it’s still relevant,” she added. “Is it perfect? No, of course not. But it’s theirs.”

Emma Silvers

Emma Silvers is a former J. staff writer.