Very few people attended both J Street’s second conference and the Jewish federation’s young leaders soiree TribeFest within the same week. I may have been the only one. At the intersection of upstart and establishment worlds, I saw firsthand the tides of change swirling within the North American Jewish community. (See my report on J Street’s moving opening session.) Suffice it to say, I saw division. But I also saw buds of convergence.
J Street’s second conference was a celebration of comeuppance for the fastest-growing new institution on the scene. The parade of new campus chapters and expanding activist teams beneath the teal street sign logo were jubilant. Under duress to halt the trickle the young Jews leaving institutional Jewish life, TribeFest too brought together 1,200 excited young faces to Las Vegas to prove that the establishment could regain its groove yet. At a purported loss of $250,000, the conference is heralded by organizers as a success.
I didn’t realize quite what a child of the emergent Jewish community I was until I stepped into the bosom of federation culture that was TribeFest. The “emergent sector,” coined by Jumpstart, is everything this formerly unaffiliated Jew has come to call my Jewish life: independent minyanim, online communities, the social justice orgs, political initiatives and culture creators. While Jumpstart’s report noted a 14% overlap between mainstream-emergent audiences, it certainly has caught our elders’ attention that large numbers of their children vote with their feet and leave the communal fold for alternate ventures. Engaged young Jews today are purportedly divided 50-50 between the emergent sector and the institutions of our parents — federations, the legacy orgs, or the denominations. The latter’s donor pyramids look upside-down as more dollars are raised from fewer donors.
TribeFest is at long last an acknowledgement that the existing model isn’t sustainable. They moved the previous 300-person elite young donor summit from DC to Las Vegas, partnered with cultural groups like JDub Records, brought in divergent voices to panels on unlikely topics (like yours truly) and enfranchised court bloggers to cover it. They threw open the doors and recruited (read: subsidized) heavily to quadruple the number attendees. And succeed they did.
In meaningfully giving 1,200 young Jews a positive, fun and energetic impression of Jewish community — then we must give credit where credit is due. TribeFest was absolutely a step in the right direction. Somebody at Jewish Federations of North America read the studies about 20s/30s programming. (After presenting twice, young federation staff told me how hard they had worked to bring diverse voices, particularly on Israel.) A handful of presenters were exceptional, most of the workshops were fully filled, and everyone was absolutely friendly.
Several main speakers were right on the money. Vanessa Hidary, “the Hebrew Mamita,” and Mayim Bialik, star of Blossom, both assuaged my initial reservations. Hidary opened with her spunky poetry about hybrid Jewish identities, called out Jewish racial privilege and prejudice, and embraced interfaith families. Bialik gave a sophisticated explanation of her Jewish identity — part religious, part cultural, entirely pluralistic. Later came the parade of terrorism- and Holocaust-tauting speakers who cost the gathering “generational relevancy” points.
See Bialik’s thoughtful remarks here:

But fear not, fans of Limmud’s international movement. TribeFest was no “Birthright meets Burning Man,” (linked fixed) a laughable claim by the LA Jewish Journal. At heart it was a conference like any other: main sessions punctuated with workshops, concluded by evening entertainment. The main speakers featured Jewish celebrities from TV, literature, sports, Congress, entrepreneurship and federation executives. While lay leaders clearly had significant involvement, there was no open call for presentations, no anyone-can-be-a-teacher ethos, no community vibe. Sitting and listening was the dominant modality. (And the schmoozing wasn’t as boozy as Gary Rosenblatt thinks.)
But therein lies the key difference to me: the success of Limmud, J Street, indie minyanim and the like rest upon lay-driven community. That is simultaneously its attraction to culture purveyors and the reason those initiatives are cash-strapped relative to federation. The attendees of TribeFest were well-moneyed lawyers, businesspeople, Google techies, and real estate developers who work long hours. This leaves them with lots of money — average income there was $130,000 — but no time to be creators. I heard little of the self-promoting cacophony common to emergent circles. (Except from panelists, being as they were culled from independent initiatives.)
Between J Street and TribeFest, I saw two Jewish communities: emergent and establishment. And this was my central message to the federation staff and lay leaders in my TribeFest panels: you can’t reach the unaffiliated. You don’t have the networks, the content, or the pedagogy. We, the new initiatives do — because we’re made of such people. But the established community is seeing the omens and has made overtures to us. Are we seeing the beginning of convergence?
You can see the convergence in multiple arenas: the American Jewish Committee just held a symposium on “engaging young Jews with Israel.” Coincidentally that was the name of my panel at TribeFest — yet folks like me weren’t invited. Looking at the list of invitees, it seems the most important voices are old, establishment men who don’t plan Israel programming for young people. Yet in the room were representatives from Encounter, J Street, New Israel Fund and other emergent groups.
Further evidence: On each TribeFest panel, audience members asked, “Other than join your organizations, what can we bring back home to our federations?” Which made me start. Bring home? It was a surprising question, because we’ve had to grow our own, separate constituencies precisely because the mainstream didn’t want to play with us new kids. Yet now it seems they do. And sadly, there was little ready-to-go programming that I could suggest for that very reason. (Trust me, I have lots of ideas now.)
Are we beginning to see convergence? Today TribeFest’s parent, the Jewish Federations of North America, announced layoffs. Already this month, Hadassah laid off 25% of their staff. Clearly, there is newfound impetus on their side to share resources and collaborate. But is it in the interests of the emergent sector to partner with the mainstream? I would argue that there is much to be gained — but I still have my skepticism. Meanwhile, J Street continues to expand.
(Media compilations of J Street’s conference and TribeFest here.)