LAS VEGAS, Nev. (JTA) — “Connect, explore and celebrate” was the tagline for Tribefest 2011 held this week in this desert gambling town.
Drumming imagery aside, the new name for what was a re-branded annual convention of the Young Leadership Division of the Jewish Federations of North America accurately described the spirited atmosphere at the confab.
More than 1,200 Jews in their 20s and 30s turned out for three days of lectures, workshops and performances on everything from new trends in Jewish art to the 2012 elections to the etiquette of offering a “L’chaim!”
The federations apparently were doing something right: People were trying to sneak into the convention rather than sneak out.
Federation officials say Tribefest is the first step in a new outreach strategy for the national federation system. Instead of targeting Jews aged 25 to 45 who already donate to federation campaigns — a tactic tried by previous Young Leadership conferences — Tribefest offered an open invitation to any young Jew who wanted, according to the marketing brochure, to be “entertained and educated” about Israel and the Jewish community, affiliated or unaffiliated.
“In the past it was about getting young leaders more engaged,” said Jewish Federations spokesman Joe Berkofsky. “This is about consciousness raising, bringing more people into the fold.”
Of course, he added, “We hope in the long term they’ll want to learn more about federation. But this is not about hitting up people for money. We’re not preaching to the converted.”
But if one of Tribefest’s central aims was about reaching a whole new audience, an informal survey of participants revealed the challenges of achieving that goal. Eleven of the 12 attendees interviewed by JTA reported that they already are active members and donors in their local federations.
“If you’re unaffiliated, why would you shlep all the way out to Vegas for this?” said Dan Sieradski, digital strategist for Repair the World.
“The scene is different, and there’s a lot more security,” said George Faber, 39, of Baltimore, who said this was his ninth Young Leadership conference.
But the people?
“Pretty much the same,” he said.
Not that it’s a bad thing, those interviewed pointed out.
They came to Tribefest to learn how to get even more involved more effectively — in federation as well as the other Jewish organizations represented. The Jewish Federations partnered for the conference with about 40 Jewish organizations popular among younger Jews, from Israel-oriented groups such as the New Israel Fund to the food justice organization Hazon to smaller groups focused on music, art and social service.
Hal Greenblatt, 26, and his friend Marc Prine, 25, both of Philadelphia, were part of the Jewish fraternity AEPi at Temple University and now are active in their local federation’s Young Leadership Division. Though this was their first time at a national conference, both said they didn’t need any convincing to make them fans of the federation system.
“There are many different ways to get your interests met in federation — cultural, social service, religious,” said Prine, who like Greenblatt enjoys social service work and has raised funds for various Jewish causes.
“My dad is a Holocaust survivor, and I grew up doing social service. I want to give that to my kids," he said. "If we’re not going to build the next generation of the Jewish community, who will?”
Some of the presenters at Tribefest didn’t seem to grasp that the conference participants were not disaffected from the Jewish establishment. At a session Monday titled “Reconnecting Young Adult Jewish-Americans to Israel,” the panelists spent an hour apologizing for what they deemed as Israel’s bad behavior to a room full of young Israel supporters who seemed bewildered by the message.
“Unlike our parents, who saw Israel as a source of pride, many in our generation see it as a source of shame and disillusionment,” said Israeli army veteran Yoav Schaefer, executive director of the Avi Schaefer Fund, which advocates for strong Diaspora support for Israel while recognizing the rights of the Palestinians.
“I’m a Zionist, pure and simple, despite what I’ve heard from this panel,” responded one audience member.
Despite their already firm connection to federation, many attendees said they appreciated the direction the conference had taken and learned a lot from the sessions.
Prine and Greenblatt particularly enjoyed a session on punk Jews.
“We have friends with Jewish tattoos, friends who are black Jews, and they are shunned by the mainstream,” Prine said. “It doesn’t matter how you want to show your Jewishness. If it means getting tattoos or wearing tzitzis, it’s all about passing the flame to the next generation.”
While Tribefest may not have drawn as many newcomers as organizers may have liked, it seemed to have hit the mark for its core audience — those already involved with federation and committed to Jewish community.
“As a Jewish professional, it got me re-energized and ready to go home and engage new people, and that’s what it’s supposed to do,” said Staci Weininger, 37, communications director of the Marcus Jewish Community Center in Atlanta.
Weininger noted that some of the 23 delegates from Atlanta weren’t in her federation database.
The lone newbie JTA interviewed, Debbie Zaidman, 38, of Columbia, S.C., said she found out about the conference from a friend’s posting on Facebook and suspected it “would be something that would inspire me.”
Zaidman grew up in a small Southern town with no Jewish community to speak of. Her mother drove her an hour each way to religious school until her confirmation at 16.
“In high school I always felt like an outsider,” she said.
Now Zaidman is part of a young Jewish professionals group in Columbia that regularly draws 100 people to events.
“It helps me be inspired,” she said. “Now I embrace my Judaism. I love it.”