Whoever you are and whenever you're there, if you chose to be in Vegas, you’re probably there because you crave, at least a little, to suspend logic, reason and thought, or because you yearn to reintroduce your serious self to its more spontaneous side. But for 1200 Jews imported for something called TribeFest, the pull to the desert was something more. These Jews, ages 25-45, took the confusing cacophony of Sin City, and added to their agenda of cocktails, craps and clubbing an exploration of Jewish identity.
For me, TribeFest came not quite at the end of two months of conference-going. Most of these were Jewish conferences, each with an intense, exploratory vibe. From the BBYO International Convention to LimmudLA and Jewlicious, those conferences were marked by serious investigations of Jewish life, leadership, culture and identity in sessions large and small, but all of them managed to feel intimate and interactive. TribeFest was a slightly different animal, largely - I believe - because of the size, but also because of the location.
With the location (and imperative to socialize) providing a formidable distraction to the programmed content, it’s a wonder that anyone went to any sessions at all, especially my Tuesday “morning after the last night of Vegas camp” session on careers in the Jewish communal world. But they came, not just to that impossibly scheduled session, but to all of them. In fact, they came in droves – there was a huge line to hear my longtime friend Sharon Pomerantz and author Joshua Braff speak about their respective novels, and I was almost closed out of the “Work the System” session, which would have been its own story had I not been rescued by someone from JFNA who understood that it was important for me to be in that room. At the standing-room only session, passionate attendees tuned in for specific notes of how to encourage collaboration between Federations and innovative initiatives, and in fact, in a challenge of the word “innovation” itself. (Anyone have audio or video footage from that session? Please share…)
At (and after) several sessions, I overheard people yearning for a more interactive framework - breakout sessions of 60 people didn't provide people with the intimacy they wanted, but perhaps had no right to expect from Vegas (or from a conference of this size). I have the impression that many sessions could have gone well into overtime by answering all of the hands that flew up in a room. Of course, it would have been great if we could have managed to filter out "non-questions" - when a speaker asks "any questions?" and people raise their hands and speak without asking any kind of interrogative statement used to test knowledge (but that's not important right now).
Some may have wandered in and out during plenaries (word on the ground is that non-sports fans may have found “Lunch with a Legend” – one of the least diverse sessions at TribeFest - skippable), or traded session attendance to take in a show (or a nap) before the evening festivities, but participants are to be commended for an overall impressive attendance record. And as uninspiring as some sessions and speakers were, others resonated with standing ovations. The incomparable and undisputed TribeFest champion was Alina Gerlovin Spaulding, who spoke passionately and personally about how the Jewish community transformed her life and that of her family when they emigrated from Ukraine - this moment was a watershed, concretizing for many the importance of structures like the Federation in helping families in need. (For a short play-by-play of the conference, see Jewcy.)
I would be surprised if any PhD theses on Jewish identity were born over those few days in Vegas, but there was a palpable feeling of Jewish excitement at specific moments. In the opening plenary, the Hebrew Mamita’s delivery of her eponymous spoken word piece - an exploration of her own Jewish identity and pride - caused a vibrant cheer to erupt at its conclusion. Many identified with the presentation by actress Mayim Bialik, who spoke candidly about her Judaism. (A partial transcript is here.) VideoJew Jay Firestone called it Birthright meets Burning Man in his video synopsis. (My video synopsis is being held for editing by my editor, me.)
In the less-than-a-week time period since the 2.5 day conference ended, there’s been some nostalgic yearning for the energy and people left behind. Twitter, in particular, has hosted a lovefest of energy and private jokes, over the #tribefest hashtag and beyond; Facebook, too, has swelled with wall postings and reminiscences, as new friends communicated across the miles. Just now, people are beginning to upload photographic proof of the good time had by all, and edit videos in a way that conveys said good time, hopefully in a way in which no Jewish professionals lose their jobs. Not that anything untoward would ever happen to a bunch of Jews in as wholesome a place as Vegas...we're just overly cautious that way.
I know the #tribefest hashtag won't last forever - but I'll watch it as long as it's there; like credits rolling at the end of a movie, I'm with them until the final frame fades into the distance, fades to black, and then it's over.
[Here's my first video report for the ROI Community filmed shortly after I arrived. Plus, in case you missed it, here's when I became a one-name sensation, much like Cher and Madonna, of course, but in a Jewish Twitter context. Other videos and photos to come, no doubt.]