Identity, Politics

From the J Street conference to TribeFest, division and convergence

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.)

45 thoughts on “From the J Street conference to TribeFest, division and convergence

  1. it used to be that the established community used the rhetoric of the polish nobility, and then some yidn rebelled against such shtadlonus and adopted the language of various marxisms. Today in America, the Jewish professional world uses the language of deteriorating American capitalism, and the “emergent sector” is just a market to stroke. Really depressing. Viva Itzik Manger.

  2. As a scientist, I wish the word “emergent” hadn’t been claimed by people who don’t understand what it means. This isn’t just out of linguistic pedantry, but because the concept of emergence is actually a really useful way of thinking about the dynamics of Jewish communities, but now anyone who tried to invoke that concept would have a 100% chance of being misunderstood. (For example, the sentence “The enthusiasm of many minyan participants is not an intrinsic property of individuals, but rather is inspired and sustained by participation in a community where they feel both supported and needed.” totally would have included a reference to emergent phenomena, except that would now be misinterpreted as saying “minyanim are new and cool”.)

  3. One other difference jumps out to me. As a young* adult synagogue member, I heard absolutely nothing about Tribefest until this post and I consume a decent bit of Jewish media. I couldn’t stop hearing about the J Street conference in the Jewish and secular press and I regularly hear more about much smaller Jewish conferences like Hazon, Havurah Committe retreats, etc. It feels like Tribefest still an elite, word-of-mouth event. Of course, that’s easy to change for next year, if they want that change. A conference that nurtures a $130K/year income or scholarships also pushes people away.
    On the question of what to bring home from Federations, I think the answer is easy: money and respect of new leadership. Respect of leadership means letting people with new ideas run with them with Federation support. It means putting some people on Federation boards or real leadership positions not because of past service or donations to the federation, but because of service to the community and ability to generate and execute exciting ideas. It means once those people are in leadership positions treating them as equals.
    * On the Tribefest website, “young” adult is now defined as 22-45. Calling 40-year-olds young adults in a lot of demographic surveys always seemed a bit odd to me, but I guess adding 45 is another type of outreach

  4. The enthusiasm of many minyan participants is not an intrinsic property of individuals, but rather is inspired and sustained by participation in a community where they feel both supported and needed.
    Thia is a grammatically incorrect sentence, btw.
    It should read:
    “The enthusiasm of many minyan participants is not an intrinsic property of individuals, but rather IT is inspired and sustained by participation in a community where they feel both supported and needed.”

  5. Are you sure the new initiatives you mention are reaching the unaffiliated? Are they doing a better job than birthright? How many of them are funded by federations? I hear what you are saying but I think you are overstating the divide between the emergent and the establishment groups in this piece. The convergence, in my humble opinion, has been happening for years. And to be fair, I think the tone of the upstarters is sometimes off-putting. They have their own “we know best” attitude. Just like the establishment’s tone they are rejecting. Meanwhile, upstarts have been partnering with the establishment from the beginning. They just never came out of the closet about it. Maybe if they do, and drop the sometimes condescending and somewhat elitist attitude, we can all learn to get a long!

  6. rebeltzon1, The “they’re all hiding/denying support from the establishment” line is getting old.
    For the hopefully definitive drubbing of this line of thought, read:
    There are a networks of new and old organizations that do work together and have lots of overlapping people. To correct a comment in KFJ’s original post, engaged young jews aren’t ” divided 50-50 between the emergent sector and the institutions of our parents” According Wertheimer’s “Generation of Change” survey that was cover on Jewschool last September, they’re divided 38% non-establishment, 38% mixed, and 24% establishment. Of course, the 38% mixed were barely discussed in the report to highlight the differences between the other extremes.
    The one place where I think the divide is real is that partnerships are rare. They’re usually establishment organizations giving top-down support to something new or learning about something new and figuring how it fits in their portfolio. Those aren’t partnerships. A partnerships is an older organization actively participating in new efforts and bringing in new leaders as equals in a conversation. Until that happens, the divides will continue.

  7. Dan, I appreciate your attentiveness to the data. A fellow numbers person. But Wertheimer’s study was of self-professed Jewish leaders, not a larger study of both leaders and non-leaders, however people define themselves. Jumpstart is due to release an updated study of the overall emergent sector within the month. I suspect that will lend light to some of these speculations. It may prove or disprove the question of convergence.
    That said, yes, Wertheimer pointed out more alternative-mainstream overlap among young Jewish leaders. But it doesn’t take much speculation to posit that the ranks of followers/consumers/average young people are decided lesser-involved.

  8. “Are they doing a better job than birthright?”
    If by ‘better job,’ you mean offering a sexier product than 10 free days of boozy tourism to the broadest possible number of college and post-college young adults, probably not.
    If you mean providing an ongoing context of Jewish life, culture and meaning, I would ask in return, who in the emergent sector isn’t doing a better job than Birthright?

  9. First of all, KFJ, great to spend some (slightly, although not entirely) boozy time with you at TribeFest. I wanted to share something that happened in the “Passion to Paycheck” session that I spoke at – I think there is convergence happening. People in that session came because they were interested in that intersection of innovation and establishment, and a number of questions spoke to the desire to work with or at Federations, specifically the ones which are making innovation and open-mindedness a priority. “How can we find the Federations that are involved in innovative work?” one man asked. I think that’s interesting, because it may point to the fact that people don’t want to throw out the Federations or other Jewish institutions – they just want the attitudes of those places of business to be more in-line with their interests and attitudes. They also seem to know that the innovation is out there, even if they’re not sure how to find it.
    I think we are at an interesting moment as far as the relationship between “the emergent sector” and “the establishment” is concerned, and I think it’s going to yield some fresh thinking and fascinating conversations, hopefully toward a creative, collaborative, inspiring and invigorating Jewish future. I know yours will be one of the voices involved! Shabbat shalom!

  10. @ JG thanks.
    @ victors see my response and swap Birthright out for Chabad… Naw its not that extreme. It both cases really depends on the individuals. Someone just looking for a good time will get little from either experience. Someone looking for meaning will get something out of both. The difference in the latter example is that Chabad can follow up endlessly and can build a real personal relationship. BRI is not structured to do this. Emergent initiatives, to a certain degree, are.

  11. Jonathan1-
    What does Rule #2 have to do with whether you can have a subject with multiple verbs (separated by a conjunction) without repeating the subject? That link is about comma usage. Also, Hitler.

  12. Adam, ok, but that doesn’t really get to the entirety of what Chabad is, which is a self-sustaining movement exhibiting fairly astounding growth, really doing yeoman’s work in any number of areas, from jewish disabilities to prisoner services to lowering the economic bar to participation in Jewish life to summer camps for kids and children, young adult and adult education, to disaster recovery missions, all on a national and international level. I’ll also point out that Chabad, until only very recently was facing outright animosity from the federation system. Their being folded into the Federation system, which is happening in fits and starts around the country, from my experience, is more out of desperation that Chabad is drawing community funders into its philanthropy network and away from the federation system.
    I’m interested to know how KFJ and others view Chabad, as a highly creative and accomplished organization confident about its potential and future (the opposite of a federation system getting more desperate by the year), and not really interested – from an organizational perspective, though individuals may be – in what the emergent sector has to offer, whether that’s independent minyanim or social justice projects and so on.

  13. @BZ
    The commas rules apply because what you wrote is two independent clauses, separated by a comma. Except that one of your independent clauses cannot stand on its own, as you wrote it. Maybe we simply have different interpretations of standard written English.
    My point was that maybe this kind of stuff really isn’t so important anyway.

  14. The commas rules apply because what you wrote is two independent clauses, separated by a comma. Except that one of your independent clauses cannot stand on its own, as you wrote it.
    They’re not independent clauses. A rule that independent clauses should be separated by a comma does not imply the converse, that any clauses separated by a comma are independent.
    My point was that maybe this kind of stuff really isn’t so important anyway.
    If you’re reacting to my comment about “emergent”, I already explained above why this isn’t just nitpicking.

  15. KFJ, I’d go one step farther on the Wertheimer study and say that they never really explained where they got their sample and there were interesting definitions of “leader.” For example, someone running a committee as a synagogue member or even on a synagogue board would not be a leader under their definition. Quite a few people, including me, fit in this category, which would sway things towards the establishment/mixed categories in a better survey.
    The trouble with any survey of non-leaders is that a huge category is still “uninvolved” and it’s hard to get a handle on that category without a full Jewish population census. Even then, I wouldn’t be surprised if the numbers are still skewed towards mixed/establishment. For example, the recent USCJ surveys showed a horrendous 10% of USCJ affiliated synagogue membership is under 40. For a 1,000,000 member organization, that’s still 100,000 people and that’s just in one denomination. I doubt the sum of non-establishment organizations are bringing in anywhere near those numbers regularly.
    I suspect the numbers are skewed more towards non-establishment for people in their early 20’s, but that was always the case. For example I remember a friend who, 10 years ago was on a synagogue board in his mid-20’s. He was considered a bit of an annoying upstart by older board members. He asked how many of them were on a synagogue board let alone joined a synagogue in their early 20’s. He got little response. This comment is getting to be a bit of free association, but, at least at the synagogue level, I suspect there might be more leadership involvement of people in their 20’s than any time in modern synagogue history. I can’t speak for others, but perhaps the willingness to walk into a new town and start an indy minyan is paired with a willingness walk into a synagogue and act as if one’s voice to be heard.

  16. Dan’s observations are in line with what we know about the differences between millennials and boomers.
    Younger people today do feel entitled to be heard. They figure out right away if they are stakeholders, and look for the insitutional mechanism by which they are being heard. They don’t see any logic in excluding stakeholders because ‘they haven’t paid dues’ by sticking around for decades.
    Boomers, seeing only one millenial, are likely to make it about that individual. millenials, seeing many instances of boomers who fail to treat them with respect and inclusion, might figure out that established groups aren’t healthy for younger cohorts.

  17. Dan,
    Is it so wonderful for people in their 20s to be joining synagogue boards? Is there no such thing as the righteous humility of inexperience? Is there nothing to be said for the “wise old men”? Maybe there isn’t, I’m just asking. If some 20 year old walked into my (chabad) shul (I’m in my late 20s), and started making demands about this or that, I would ignore and think less of him.
    Personal credibility, at least in my shul, is based on a demonstrated commitment to the community. That takes years to build. Years of attending weddings, brises, comforting mourners and celebrating converts; years of one on one and group learning with the “wise old men”, late into the night and being there for minyan in the morning; years of helping families move in and out of homes; years of helping coral the kids during High Holidays; years of doing a seder for old Russian Jews a two hour walk away on yom tov, or helping clean the crap at the shul and making it look great for holidays, and learning to accept real, uncomfortable criticism for the “wise old men” in the community about your personality and direction in life…
    All these things give an individual the license to open his mouth. Any 20 year old, or 30 year old, or 80 year old who comes into my shul from nowhere and tries to order anyone around will get smacked down, rhetorically, of course, and rightly so.
    But that’s my shul. Maybe it works differently “out there”.

  18. I have nothing of substance to add to this conversation except to commend everyone for having a great conversation. It’s not often that I read a new post on Jewschool with 20-some-odd comments and actually read through all the comments.

  19. Victor, you are trying to have a conversation on the ‘should’ level. How ‘should’ it work in conformity to certain cultural values.
    About this, I don’t care.
    The generational conversation is different. It’s about what is more likely to attract, engage, and keep millenials and other younger cohorts involved enough over time to become the wise old men in wise old institutions. And we have an answer with no moral or ethical dimension whatsoever. It is: involve and include them in create/meaningful ways appropriate to what they know and can do RIGHT NOW and not in the sense of investing in them for later.
    It usually involves people with generational power giving it up voluntarily.
    And this actually works.
    The alternative is all about young people distancing themselves from dying institutions. Not always, not everywhere, but as a trend that will increase over time.

  20. Victor,
    I think important leadership positions in organizations should have wise old men AND WOMEN who speak from both personal experience and as a source of institutional memory. Still, I think it is to the detriment of any community to make that a requirement for leadership. A board’s job is to safeguard the long-term health of an organization. To only allow the voices from one segment of a population is a great way to push people from other segments away. As one example, I was part of a synagogue in a college town. A minority, but sizable fraction of the congregation were members for 4-10 years before moving away. This group has different needs than others and the synagogue often tried to have someone that group on the board to make sure it’s needs were being met. Even if the specific person wasn’t going to be there in 5 years, they represented an important voice.
    I’m not saying a board seat should be made available to anyone who walks in the front door and asks for it, but the “wait your turn you whipper-snapper” approach to leadership is a great way to alienate a lot of potential members. I’ll also add that I don’t think a new person should be able to enter a community and expect them to make major changes based on what they say, but I do expect that the voices of all congregants (regardless of age and longevity in the community) will be listened to with respect.
    Also, based on your earlier comments regarding Chabad. I’m not sure I agree it’s a self-sustaining movement. At minimum, their growth has been powered by significant donations from non-Chabadniks. In addition, the period of Chabad growth is, currently, no longer than the growth periods of other movements (Reform in the 1800’s, Conservative in the 1900’s, …). How long this growth will continue and in what form is still a question. The current shaliach system can’t keep growing and attracting funding at the rate of new rabbis/families needing jobs. The theological split over messianic issues can’t be brushed away forever. That they’ve stopped trying to work along and are collaboration with Federations is as much a sign of them realizing the need for some external structure and collaborations as the Federations need for work with some of Chabad’s successful programs.

  21. What a corporate – “balance sheet” – mindset to community building. And the reason why it will continue to fail. It’s not about love, or passion, or meaning, but attendance numbers, money and power. 18-30 year olds don’t create a community they and their future families will need; they create a community which they as young brats who don’t know very much about the world want. There is a massive and fundamental difference.
    Someone like KFJ has another five to ten years before he’s an old kaker himself, before he is no longer able to speak from the “young Jewish leadership” wing of the movement, before a 22 year old upstarts tell him to sit his wrinkly butt down. Pandering to the arrogance and intemperance of youth is a dangerous exercise.

  22. Victor, The community I want now is a community that respects and values people of all ages and I pray I’ll think the same thing when I’m older. It’s a community that looks at all it’s members and tries to find ways to make them feel welcome It’s a synagogue that looks for unaddressed communal needs and debates whether the synagogue is able to help address those needs. It’s a community whose members don’t assume that what works for them works for others and are willing to listen and learn. It’s a community where some senior members willingly give up leadership positions to make sure newer members also have a real voice. I say this as someone who currently has children (not one of your 22-year olds with a “future family)
    I don’t know what part of caring about others voices and making a welcoming community makes it a corporate balance sheet. I hope those wise old congregants have the wisdom to make and support such communities.

  23. Dan, the Wertheimer survey was voluntary and self-selecting, then asked respondents to detail what and where they were involved. I also take it with a grain of salt, since I think more emergent/extra-establishment “leaders” aren’t in the networks where these types of surveys are purveyed. That’s just my personal hypothesis.
    Victor, every leadership team should be comprised of a representative sampling of whoever benefits from the services of the community. It’s the same principle that leads to democracy, that truly informed governance is one that includes all constituents. (And before you ask, yes, I believe Tea Party politicians should be in Congress.)
    As always, I think your view of tradition is overly rosy. Chabad has a unique culture of supreme obedience to the rabbinate. I think within Chabad, you will notice young rabbis who chafe at the previous generation — and as a result have started their own operations. I think this is where you see “rogue” Chabad operations doing the same work but excommunicated by the official institution. Same phenomenon of impatience with old leadership.
    But against the “balance sheet” comment — how will you have truly impassioned community if the most passionate people are blocked from leadership? Or are told to wait 20 years. Makes no sense to me.
    And yes, someday, my views will be utterly mainstream. (I’ve already seen much change in just five years.) And when I am mainstream, I will not commit the mistakes my predecessors made by trying to stomp out young leadership. Meaning in a few years, I will leave Jewschool to a younger leadership who may or may not share my outlook on the world. That’s real continuity, not the “clone myself” continuity of our leadership.

  24. I think that in ten years, your views will be as opinionated and edgy as ever, KFJ. I think you will look at the community you helped to build and understand how important your successes and failures have been to developing an understanding of what it takes to run and grow a community. Which is why it will be an utter shame that your accumulated wisdom will be tossed aside. I don’t value that. But it’s not my community, and not my values. I don’t think the old kakers on synogogue boards today thought any differently from you in the freewheeling 60s and 70s, when they were the upstarts, though at the time that probably meant being the most American-assimilated and financially successful members of the community.
    You’re right, I may have an over-romanticized vision of a traditional Jewish shul. Your point regarding inter-Chabad conflicts (as opposed to Chabad-“friend of Chabad” relationships) is well taken. It’s usually kept behind closed doors, and the absolute supremacy of the head shaliach in a given region tends to settle any disputes that get out of hand. My first, most beloved and incredibly gifted Rabbi of many years was thus unceremoniously dispatched from our shul. There’s definitely a lot of turnover due to personal disagreements, especially in the schools, where younger teachers sign one year contracts for many years in a row. It’s not unusual for a shaliach who hasn’t set roots anywhere to have lived in three or four communities within ten years.

  25. Rabbi (Meir) said,”Look not at the flask but at what is therein;
    There may be a new flask full of old wine,
    and an old flask wherein is not even new wine.”
    Pirke Avot 4:20
    One should not equate age with wisdom–something that has become very evident to me during the past 4 years of serving on a synagogue board.
    Choosing board members is no easy task. KFJ is correct that there ought to be a broad sampling of the community represented on the board. But I’m not necissarily in agreement about impassioned board members; wise leadership comes when one can be sufficiently dispassionate about something and still care deeply about it.
    I learned from Larry Kaufman, who posts here on occasion, that a good board member should have at least 2 of 3 W’s: Work, wisdom, and wealth. This seems to be a good general guideline.
    I would love to see more young adults on our board, but I think the good prospects recognize what most of Jewschoolers believe: it’s easier to start your own thing rather than change synagogue culture. So that cohort just isn’t around in synagogue life. Despite many folks suggesting that I am a polyanna, I still remain unwilling to accept the common notion that we should kiss our members goodbye when they graduate high school and not expect to have them back until they have their own kids.

  26. Thanks Ruth. What great advice. Makes me wonder – wouldn’t it be cool is we had more posts from synagogue board members with stories based on their experiences?

  27. Thanks to Ruth B for the shout-out. And thanks to KFJ for a provocative and challenging post.
    As someone not of what I perceive as the Jewschool generation, and as a veteran of many boards, including a synagogue board, I look at the categorization of establishment vs. emergent, understand the difference, but point out that both are governed by the Golden Rule — the one who has the gold makes the rule.
    I have seen my own role over the years not as a gad-fly, which suggests someone who stirs the pot and then leaves the serving to someone else, but nonetheless as a challenger of the status quo. This requires a tricky balance between patience and impatience if you’re working within an established culture and hierarchy. I applaud those who stick it out without being co-opted, and also those who go out on their own.
    In fact, we might look at the division that KFJ calls emergent vs. establishment as entrepreneurial vs. corporate.

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