In Las Vegas, Jewish federations take a gamble on engaging young Jews

LAS VEGAS (JTA) — In this city of betting and sin, the Jewish Federations of North America took a gamble.

Jewish federations from the United States and Canada collectively kicked in tens of thousands of dollars in subsidies to send 1,500 Jews aged 22 to 45 to the Venetian resort and casino in Las Vegas for last week’s TribeFest, a gathering designed to engage participants in Jewish communal life.

The question now is whether the gamble will pay off.

Marty Paz, the incoming campaign chairman of the Jewish Federation of Las Vegas, believes it will.

“I think everyone in this room can give $18 a year,” Paz said, describing how TribeFest could be a vehicle to cultivate a “habit of giving” among participants. A small request now for a cause that people care for, he said, “could later on, as they reach professional success, turn into hundreds of thousands of dollars.”

This was the second year that the umbrella organization for Jewish federations has organized TribeFest, and Jewish Federations CEO Jerry Silverman said last year’s event, also held in Las Vegas, resulted in some clear success stories.

In one case, he said, participants from San Diego began organizing social justice programming around food. In another, he pointed to a woman from Richmond, Va., Danielle Aaronson, who attended last year’s TribeFest and now is the young leadership director of her federation.

But event organizers stressed that TribeFest was neither a fundraising pitch nor a call for participants to be involved with their federations, per se, so long as they’re involved with the Jewish community.

"I think that each community has a responsibility to follow up," said event co-chair Jason Rubinoff of Toronto.

The three-day retreat March 25-27 didn’t have a central theme. Rather, TribeFest tried a something-for-everybody approach.

Presenters ranged from Jewish celebrities — former "Saturday Night Live" cast member Rachel Dratch and Olympic gold medalist Lenny Krayzelburg – to two parents of children with genetic disorders who urged audience members to undergo testing for the 19 genetic diseases common to Ashkenazi Jews.

There also was a service component. Armed with 4,000 books donated by the PJ Library — an organization that promotes Jewish literacy by distributing free Jewish books to thousands of American Jewish households — 600 participants loaded onto buses early on a Monday morning to distribute books and read to local elementary public school students.

Participants cited a wide range of reasons for coming to TribeFest.

Some said they came to meet other Jewish singles. One lawyer toying with switching to a career in the rabbinate said she came to learn. An engineer from Houston who spent the last two years building an oil rig in Russia’s Far East came to socialize. A young federation professional from Delaware said she was seeking ways to strengthen messaging for her community’s campaign.

Sessions covered everything from dating tips to an election debate featuring representatives from the National Jewish Democratic Council and the Republican Jewish Coalition. During that session, billionaire Sheldon Adelson – the casino magnate who owns the Venetian and whose philanthropy portfolio includes both New Gingrich’s presidential campaign and Birthright Israel — briefly took the microphone to express his displeasure with President Obama.

Outside programming hours, TribeFest goers were granted drink specials and free admission to some of the most popular nightclubs on the Las Vegas Strip. A few also ventured their way to food and drink receptions hosted by partner organizations.

Federation officials haven’t figured out yet whether there will be a TribeFest next year, but they did announce a spring leadership conference for next March in Dallas.

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