LAS VEGAS — For anyone curious about what organized Jewish communities will look like in the years to come, the Jewish Federations of North America’s second annual TribeFest was the place to be last week.
The three-day event held in Las Vegas at the Venetian Hotel from March 25 to 27, welcomed more than 1,400 young Jews from 81 communities in North America to celebrate Jewish culture.
TribeFest co-chair Jason Rubinoff insisted that the event was not about campaigning and fundraising. Rather, he said, it offered Jews in their 20s, 30s and early 40s an opportunity to connect to Jewish culture and identity.
Judging by the content – which included interactive sessions about climate change, making the community more welcoming to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered Jews, and exploring the connection between Zionism and liberalism – the event focused not on the history that has shaped Jewish culture for the past 70 years, but on what will shape and influence the Jewish communities in the years to come.
Filmmakers, social activists, entrepreneurs, religious leaders and community builders led the sessions during the day, while Jewish and Israeli musicians performed concerts at night.
Participants even had the opportunity to take part in a service project that sent busloads of participants to various public Las Vegas schools in low-income neigbourhoods to distribute 1,000 backpacks filled with books to students.
But the biggest draw was the opening event, one that was delivered more like a standup comedy show.
Saturday Night Live alum Rachel Dratch, who was promoting her book titled Girl Walks Into a Bar…: Comedy Calamities, Dating Disasters, and a Midlife Miracle, talked about being subconsciously Jewish, but not incorporating Jewish traditions into her life.
After cracking jokes about how crazy our traditions sound to non-Jews (on Pesach, “we wait for a ghost to come so we can drink with him”) and how disgusting Jewish cuisine is (“there’s got to be someone out there who can up the chocolate quality level of the Chanukah gelt!”), Dratch did speak about why it’s important for her to stay connected to her Jewish roots.
“Like many Jews today, I do feel connected culturally more than religiously, but I do yearn for Judaism to inform my daily life more,” she said.
“I may not know what Lag b’Omer is… but I know when I’m around other Jews, I feel at home.”
A.J. Jacobs, bestselling author of A Year of Living Biblically – a book that chronicled his attempt to take every one of the commandments and mitzvot literally and incorporate them into his everyday life – also opened the event.
Jacobs pre-empted his address with a disclaimer about the role that Judaism plays in his life.
In trying to emphasize how secular his upbringing was, Jacobs said, “I’m Jewish in the same way that the Olive Garden is Italian… Shockingly, until recently, I thought the Haftorah was literally 50 per cent of the Torah.”
Speaking about his experience writing his most widely received book, he said the project led him connect with his Judaism for the first time in his life.
(For more details about the opening event, check out heebonics.ca.)
One of the most encouraging signs that the future of our community will be left in capable hands was 16-year-old Talia Leman.
Hearing her speak passionately about her non-profit organization called RandomKid, her poise, her wisdom far beyond her years – nevermind what she’s accomplished in her short life – was enough to turn the cynics into believers of the tikkun olam philosophy.
Through RandomKid, an organization led by youth to “solve the problems in the world,” Leman has worked with 12 million kids from 20 countries and has raised about $11 million.
Day 2 of TribeFest began on a more serious note, with presentations about preventing Jewish genetic diseases and creating support systems for cancer survivors. Later, participants heard sobering messages about the root cause of terrorism, and an inspiring story about achieving one’s dreams in the Holy Land.
Brooke Goldstein, 31, a Canadian-born human rights lawyer, talked about the inspiration behind her 2006 documentary titled The Making of a Martyr, which explores the indoctrination and recruitment of Palestinian children for suicide bombings.
“Hate indoctrination is the root cause of terrorism,” she said, adding that Palestinian children who are recruited to become martyrs are victimized similarly to African child soldiers.
(Goldstein will be the subject of an upcoming Heebonics feature.)
Switching focus to a more positive aspect of life in Israel, 27-year-old Hadas Malada-Matsree, an Ethiopian-born medical officer in the Israeli Air Force, told her inspiring story of making aliyah with her family through Operation Moses in 1988.
Malada-Matsree was four years old when her father woke her and her five siblings in the middle of the night to tell them they’d be embarking on a journey on foot to the Holy Land.
“We walked for six weeks, hiding from soldiers and robbers during the day and moving only at night time,” she said.
They were caught one night by a group of Sudanese soldiers who questioned them, asking if they were Jews on their way to Israel. Her father insisted that they were simply trying to escape the hunger in Ethiopia, but the soldiers didn’t buy his story.
Her father was arrested, while she, her siblings and her mother were confined in a Sudanese refugee camp.
She said many died from hunger and disease. Malada-Matsree herself contracted malaria, measles and a skin disease that caused her to lose all her body hair.
Ten months after being held in the camps, her father was released from prison, and shortly after that, her family was rescued through Operation Moses and brought to Israel.
Upon her arrival, she was immediately sent to a hospital in Be’er Sheva, where she was treated for her life-threatening illnesses. It was during her six-month stay at the hospital that she was inspired by the medical staff to follow in their footsteps.
Today, Malada-Matsree is an Israeli, a wife, mother, doctor, volunteer and role model to other Israeli minorities who dare to dream big.
(Check out heebonics.ca for more details on Malada-Matsree.)
Another Israeli who dares to dream is Stav Shaffir, one of the leaders of Israel’s social protest movement last summer that garnered worldwide attention.
Shaffir, a 26-year-old journalist, said following her army service, she moved to London, England, for three years to pursue an education and then returned to Israel.
“I knew that returning to Israel would be neither easy nor comfortable. Many of my best friends had already left the country… and had given up on a future in Israel. The lack of hope had reached them, not only politically, but financially and socially.”
But, Shaffir added, last summer, they discovered hope again.
She explained that she and a group of friends she met on Facebook agreed to pitch tents on Rothschild Boulevard in Tel Aviv to protest for affordable housing.
The movement quickly caught on, and soon tent cities were popping up all over the country.
“For the first time in decades, we made ourselves free in our own country… It became a city within a city, a country, within a country and it was ours.”
She said it soon became clear that the movement wasn’t simply about affordable housing.
She said that the slow deterioration and decrease in funding for social services in Israel was anti-Zionist and divisive.
There is a saying in Israel, Shaffir said. “Tell me who your enemies are and I’ll tell you who you are. Jews against Arabs, Mizrachi against Ashkenazi, religious people against secular.
“For years, the government hasn’t listened to us, and we would just blame each other. That is now over. Today, for the first time, we don’t look at our past with horror, but to our future, and with great hope.”