NEWS: CHAI LIGHTS

Members of the tribe

We're lucky to be members of the tribe.

Despite our history of perpetual persecution and tsuris, most of us wouldn't trade it for anything. After all, we're members of a tribe who know that it's how we treat each other that's coreand all the rest is commentary. We're members of a tribe who value family, community, education, and deed. We're members of a tribe of funny peoplewith all we've been through, we kind of have to be. And, yes, we're members of a tribe that bake a mean mandelbread.

Tribal love was fresh in mind as I flew to Las Vegas this spring for the aptly-named TribeFest, a conference put on by The Jewish Federations of North America (JFNA). The gathering was aimed at Jews, ages 22 to 45, ready to change our communities, inspired to make a difference in the world. We MOTs (members of the tribe)1,500-strong and 47 of us from Chicagowere back in the desert, this time wandering the strip for three days rather than the wilderness for 40 years.

On a bus ride in Vegas, a guy at the conference, Yuri, struck up a conversation with my friend and me. After exchanging names, we segued into a chat about the ethnic origin of names. I mentioned in passing that my late Belarus-born grandfather's last name was Loikomovitch before he shortened it at Ellis Island. That's funny, Yuri told me. Loikomovitch was his family's name too. Vegas odds are, considering the unusual name we share in common and the fact that there aren't all that many of us Jews in the world, we likely could be related; we literally could be members of the same tribe.

TribeFest felt like a modern Jewish version of "This is Your Life," a 1950s game show where people from the contestants' past surprise them during the show. Indeed my Vegas edition of the game show includes a girl who I went to preschool with, a guy from my hometown synagogue, a fellow journalism major from college, and one of my all-time favorite people I've interviewed, author A.J. Jacobs. Like me, everyone at the conference played their own rounds of Jewish geography in between rounds of poker and roulette.

But even if we didn't learn the Alef-Bet alongside each other in preschool or pray with each other at shul as teenseven if we had never met beforewe're all part of the same tenacious, joyous, heartbreaking, and neurotic Jewish narrative.

Jewish comedian and Saturday Night Live alum Rachel Dratch told the TribeFest crowd how much she loves being an MOT. As she put it, "When I'm with other Jews, I feel like I'm homeeven though I'm in a huge hotel ballroom in Vegas."

And we heard from other people at the conference who I'm proud to call members of my tribe. There was Iowa-native Talia Leman. When Talia was just 10 years old, she took it upon herself to trick or treat one Halloween not for candy for herself, but for coins to donate to Hurricane Katrina victims. Now, at 17, she is the CEO and founder of RandomKid, a non-profit enabling kids to harness the power to solve problems in the world.

We met Atlanta's Randy Gold, last year's winner of JFNA's Jewish Community Hero of the Year Award. Randy, and his wife Caroline, are empowering thousands of young Jews to screen for Jewish genetic diseases, inspired by their daughter, Eden, who suffers from Mucolipidosis Type IV, a Jewish Genetic Disorder.  Here in Chicago, Jews can get screened for 18 known preventable Jewish genetic diseases through the Chicago Center for Jewish Genetic Disorders (jewishgenetics.org), a cooperative effort of the Chicago Federation and Children's Memorial Hospital.

And Bradley Sherman, a Cleveland lawyer, shared his story about how his connections to the Jewish world sparked three miracles in his lifefirst, he was adopted as a baby by a Jewish family through a Jewish agency; second, he met his wife trekking through Israel on a teen trip; and third, when his mother was killed by a drunk driver, his Jewish ZBT fraternity brothers at Northwestern University organized daily minyans so he could say kaddish for his mother.

Bradley's Jewish frat "brothers" are his family.  In fact, we are all family. Whether or not we shared the same name back in the shtetl, like my new friend from the bus, we are all members of the same tribe.

Posted: 5/1/2012 11:21:05 AM
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