At the end of March, I took a trip to Las Vegas, and despite how the old saying goes, this time I hope what happened in Vegas won't stay there.
For three days, I joined more than 1,500 young Jews—including nearly 50 Chicagoans—representing 81 communities throughout North America as we literally took over the Venetian Hotel in Vegas for the Jewish Federations of North America's (JFNA) second annual TribeFest. After spending three days and nights learning, networking, and partying with my peers, I was physically exhausted, but mentally and spiritually energized and invigorated.
"It was so powerful seeing over 1,500 up and coming young Jewish leaders from the U.S and Canada all gathered together to gain leadership skills, learn about issues important to our culture, and simply get to know other Jews," said Jason Chess, president of JUF's Young Leadership Division.
During the days we heard from incredibly powerful speakers, from celebrities to athletes to activists, who inspired us to take action, get involved-who let us know that the actions of one small person can make and impact, and that together we can change the world. We participated in breakout sessions that covered everything from the Jewish Vote in 2012 to the world of Jewish online dating. We learned about the important work of Federation, and how to take responsibility for the future of our communities. One participant even tweeted "I never knew Federation did things like this. I'm so proud to be Jewish."
Bradley Sherman, who serves on JFNA's National Young Leadership Cabinet spoke about three difficult times during his life when he was saved by "miracles" made possible by Federation. As he spoke, people cried along with him, and when he finished he received a standing ovation.
"For years I have heard that my generation does not care, that we are self-absorbed, and do not think long term," said Caryn Fields, YLD campaign associate. "Yet, 1,500 participants say otherwise. My generation does care; we just might show it in ways different than those before us. We care about our past, our present and our future."
At night we dressed up and bonded while dancing to Israeli bands, waiting in excruciatingly long lines to get into night clubs, and around the roulette table. Somehow, in the oversized, overstimulated setting of a Vegas night club, our Jewish and social worlds seemed both larger and smaller at the same time.
'How we all Jewin?'
Author and self-proclaimed "human guinea pig," A.J. Jacobs kicked off the opening event speaking about his year of living biblically, his upcoming book about healthy living, and how—for him—joining a synagogue is a bit like having a gym membership. "I'm Jewish, but I'm Jewish in the same way the Olive Garden is Italian," he said.
Former Saturday Night Live cast member Rachel Dratch, who spent time in Chicago performing at The Second City got laughs as she walked out to the "Debbie Downer" theme song, from her popular SNL skit.
"What up Jews? How we all Jewin'?" she said. Dratch did not disappoint, joking about the task of explaining Passover to her non-Jewish boyfriend. "You realize how little you know about your religion when you hear the words coming out of your mouth." Considering herself more of a cultural Jew than a spiritual one, Dratch was surprised to find while writing her recently released book, Girl Walks into a Bar . . .: Comedy Calamities, Dating Disasters, and a Midlife Miracle, that her Jewish identity kept creeping to the surface.
"We pray in a language we don't understand, our music is in a weird minor key that is both sad and beautiful at the same time, and though we boast many amazing chefs we cannot get it together on the Jewish food thing. It sucks, and we know it, but we still eat it because that's how we know we are in the tribe," she said. "But I know I don't want to be the link in the chain that breaks from the tribe, not after all these years of carrying it on…I may not know what Lag b'Omer is…but I know that when I'm with other Jews I feel like I'm home. Even though, I'm in a huge hotel ballroom in Vegas, I'm in the desert, I'm with the tribe and I am home."
The kickoff program also featured the incredibly articulate and charming 17-year-old Talia Leman, CEO and founder of RandomKid, a non-profit organization that leverages the power of youth to solve problems in the world. We also heard from Jerry Silverman, JFNA's President and CEO. "Tribefest is a breakthrough strategy that illuminates the power of the collective and the ultimate value of community," he said. "It is created by your generation for your generation but it has far reaching impact for the entirety of the Jewish community. This is your community—the future is yours. But more important, what TribeFest says is that the present is yours as well."
Gambling on the next generation
The next day, we woke up early after a long night out to share our morning reading to a young child from an underfinanced Las Vegas school, to deliver them a gift of a backpack full of books. Later that morning the focus was awareness of Jewish genetic health issues. We heard from the Jewish Gene Screen about the importance of genetic testing and heard about hereditary cancers from Chicago's own Jonny Imerman of "Imerman Angels" and Rochelle Shoretz of "Sharsheret," an organization that connects Jewish women fighting breast cancer.
That afternoon we heard from the incredibly brave and powerful Brooke Goldstein, a New York-based human rights attorney, author and filmmaker; Olympic swimmer and four-time and gold medalist Lenny Krayzelburg; Hadas Malada-Matsree, a medical officer in the Israeli Air Force who literally walked from Sudan to Israel to make aliyah at the age of four; and Stav Shaffir, one of the leaders of Israel's social protest movement. Other speakers included Jonathan Greenblatt, special assistant to President Obama and director of the Office of Social Innovation and Civic Participation, Jordan Wolfe who created a model to engage young Jews in the Detroit community, and many more.
As a group, we left feeling pumped up, filled with ideas, and encouraged to take that momentum home to our respective communities, to ensure that, for once, what happened in Vegas did not stay in Vegas.