Las Vegas — When Sandra Graff attended a “Vodka-Latke” social event sponsored by the Jewish Federation of Greater Santa Barbara (Calif.) last Chanukah, she submitted her e-mail address for updates on future events.
A few months later Graff, 32, found herself in Las Vegas, one of 1,200 young Jews to gather for TribeFest, three days of entertainment, socializing and discussions intended to cultivate better Jewish engagement among people of her generation.
“I grew up Jewish but haven’t been practicing much since I moved to California from Chicago 12 years ago,” said Graff, who is studying to be a substance abuse counselor. She describes herself as “somewhere between Reform and Conservative, not very religious, but very Jewish.”
At TribeFest, Graff said she enjoyed connecting with peers, reliving moments from Hebrew school such as singing “Hatikvah” and the communal “hamotzi” prayer before lunch and listening to forums such as a session on LGBT inclusion in the Jewish community.
“Although I’m heterosexual it was interesting to see two lesbian women say, ‘this is who I am’ and put it out there and not be afraid and see what kind of response they get. I think we as a community should be accepting.”
Because 40 organizations as well as local federations partnered with the Jewish Federations of North America, the umbrella group for communal philanthropy, to create TribeFest, a large number of participants — including a dozen interviewed by The Jewish Week — have professional or lay leadership ties to those groups.
But Graff is an example of precisely the demographic TribeFest was aimed at as communal leadership grapples with what they fear will be a shortage of strongly affiliated and committed Jews and future leaders, outside the Orthodox community.
“When I went to California I felt like I was losing my roots,” she said. “I wanted to come back to a community where I knew I would always be accepted.”
Organizers of the event at the sprawling Mandalay Bay Casino and Resort worked overtime to break the mold of stuffy federation conferences of the past that have been geared toward activism and fundraising. And the setting was intentionally conducive to accommodate those who wanted to mix fun, networking and engagement — or skip the business part of it altogether and party with other Jews. One of the planners, speaking off the record, said that in selecting the setting and that of future TribeFests, the focus was on “places where people go for bachelor parties.”
Comedian Joel Chasnoff, in a Monday night stand-up appearance, quipped, “I think this is just what the Jewish world needs nine months from now — a bunch of babies named Mandalay Bay.”
The schedule alternated between main-stage gatherings with prominent speakers and issue-based breakout sessions, with evening cocktail parties accompanied by entertainment.
A crowd favorite was actress Mayim Bialik, who played the teenage sitcom character “Blossom” in the ‘90s and currently appears on CBS’ “Big Bang Theory.”
Bialik, 35, said in a Sunday afternoon address that she had attended programs sponsored by the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles throughout childhood, even during her TV career, and now volunteers with the Jewish Free Loan Association in L.A.
“I personally chose to expand my Jewish observance when I started dating my husband in college,” she said. “But my Jewish identity exists alongside my observance, not because of it. It is not predicated in how many mitzvahs we do. Judaism is not a cafeteria religion but a tribe of cumulative acts.”
At Monday’s lunch session, two Jewish NFL team owners, Jonathan Kraft of the New England Patriots and Mark Wilf of the Minnesota Vikings spoke about their families’ experience escaping the Holocaust and their commitment to Jewish causes and business ties in Israel, as well as the dilemmas associated with games on the High Holy Days.
Risa Levitt, 33, said she came to TribeFest with her husband, Evan, who works for the Jewish Federation of Monmouth County, N.J., because “it’s a good opportunity to network with other Jewish community members.” She said the Monmouth federation offered a subsidy for the $475 registration fee and held a local event before TribeFest as well as a reception in Las Vegas. “Before we even left there was the added benefit of meeting other Jewish professionals from our area,” she said.
Steve Scheck, co-chair of the JFNA’s National Young Leadership Council said TribeFest was entirely planned by people of the demographic it is trying to reach: people in their 20s, 30s and 40s.
“We want to allow people to celebrate Judaism the way they think it’s important to celebrate Judaism, not how we tell them to,” said Scheck, 37, of Miami.
At each breakout session staff members scanned a barcode on the ID badges of participants as they entered, not only to track the popularity of each session but also to follow up with those participants based on the interest they expressed through their choices.
“We want people to walk away from this feeling connected in whatever way they want to feel connected,” said co-chair Alice Viroslav, 47, a radiologist from San Antonio. “So we’ll be able to see if their interests are in art, culture, Israel or spirituality.”
The co-chairs said JFNA young leadership programming in recent years has skewed toward people in their 30s and 40s, with younger Jews harder to reach. Key to their effort, they said, is creating a new connotation for the term federation, which millennials likely associate with baby boomers and stuffy programs taking place in boardrooms.
“We have to not just be comfortable but excited,” said Scheck, who owns a Wi-Fi service company in Miami. “We want to be a clearinghouse for all things Jewish, so if you want music, politics, philanthropy, there is a federation hub for that. We want people to connect with federations not because they have to but because they want to.”
At Monday night’s “Main Stage” event, featuring Chasnoff’s comedy and music from Yemen Blues, a small number of men wearing kipot blended in line around carving stations with women in cocktail dresses. At tables, married couples exchanged anecdotes about their kids as younger participants told recent college stories, reflecting the “big tent” allure of TribeFest.
“I’ve met everyone here from Chabad bochrim to a woman who is transgender and everyone in between,” said musician Yitz Jordan, aka Y Love, who performed Sunday night and also attended breakout sessions.
Ryan Skarbec, 30, a student at Touro University’s College of Medicine in Vallejo, Calif., said he found out about TribeFest from a friend who attended other JFNA young leadership programs and saw it as a way to reconnect with Jewish life.
“They’ve made it a great networking experience, but it’s also fun to meet other Jews, and it kind of spans the plethora of Judaism: the cultural, religious, ethnic views, the spiritual and religious views,” said Skarbec, who is not affiliated with any federation. “I think it will definitely engage a lot of people in a way that they may not have thought of until they got here.”
As for Graff she said she’ll take her future in communal life one step at a time. “I don’t know if I’m ready for leadership yet,” she said. “I think I need to go [to events] a couple of more times as a guest where I’m welcome and free to come and go.”
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