Vegas Draws Youths Looking For Meaningful Relationships

June 1, 2012       Mark Hrywna      

The hope is that what happened in Vegas won’t stay in Vegas. The jackpot for TribeFest organizers would be for the event to have a youthful impact on Jewish communities through the nation.

It’s The Jewish Federations of North America’s effort to connect with a new generation of supporters and convince them that it’s not their father’s charity. Like many nonprofits, the organization must replenish an aging and dwindling donor base and so it’s reaching out to engage young people.

“Who doesn’t love a social experience in Vegas,” 25-year-old Rachel Lachover asked rhetorically. She was quick to add that it’s also a great opportunity to present a more meaningful experience. “It’s not just about connecting in Vegas. You can go to Vegas anytime you want, but what happens in Vegas doesn’t stay. We want you to bring it home.”

As associate director for CommunityNEXT, a division of the Jewish Federations of Metropolitan Detroit that aims to develop youth leadership, Lachover’s summer will be full of different local programs to engage TribeFest attendees.

“The traditional federation model is very old school. The first thing we don’t do is ask for a campaign gift,” said Lachover. But they do raise money, such as Do It For Detroit coming up in August, where young people get together to raise money for a particular local cause in the Motor City.

Detroit is becoming a case study for other federations or other cities struggling or looking to grow their engagement, she said.

The Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Detroit was the city that sent the most people to this year’s TribeFest (90), in addition to speakers and panelists, and the national co-chair, Rachel Wright.

Justin Jacobs, founder and president of ComePlayDetroit (CPD), credits TribeFest’s setting, as well as the wide range of session opportunities and flexibility, in getting involved. If it wasn’t in Vegas and organized the way it is, he said that he most probably would not attend. “There’s so much to do in Vegas. You’re able to have a good time, start your day by the pool and end it at the club, and in between pick what opportunities you want,” he said.

An organization that aims to provide unique and active social experiences for young adults, CPD is often the first entry point for young adults to get involved locally, said Jacobs. “They were more interested in the entrepreneurship side and how we can strengthen community through social engagement, not necessarily as much the religious side as much as more on the cultural side through tradition,” said Jacobs.

“We’re seeing that there’s something fundamentally different about this particular age cohort. They’re not going to naturally age into Jewish community involvement like their parents and predecessors,” said Jerry Silverman, president and CEO of The Jewish Federations of North America. Generations ago, Jews naturally became involved with the Federation and so TribeFest was about finding a “riveting, magnetic way” to bring young Jews together in a way that resonates for them, he said. “What is meaningful about the Jewish community, in particular, and how they can have a voice in helping shape the future of Jewish community.”

People are searching for meaning and community, according to Beth Mann, associate vice president of development affinities at The Jewish Federations of North America. “What those things are to young people changes with each generation. But it’s a constant quest for anyone who’s looking for those two things in their lives,” she said.

The second annual TribeFest was held in late March, and featured Saturday Night Live alum Rachel Dratch. Registered attendance was up from 1,300 the previous year, and almost one-quarter of this year’s 1,500 had been to TribeFest 2011. Last year, 40 percent had never participated in local federation programs and more than 60 percent had never been to something like a national federal program.

Close to 90 percent of people surveyed who went to TribeFest are more interested in getting involved with their local federation. “Most people who came to TribeFest never came to something like this,” Mann said. “It’s a critical element there, modeling a different kind of communal engagement,” she said.

The seeds of TribeFest were planted almost three years ago when Silverman was meeting with co-chairs of the organization’s National Youth Leadership to brainstorm how the organization could engage young adults into Jewish life, and “create a spark, or continue to open a new lens for young people,” he said. “That really was the beginning of the dialogue.”

National Youth Leadership has been an affinity group of the Jewish Federations for decades, seeking to engage young leaders in the work of their local community, as well as nationally and internationally and come together for public policy efforts in Washington, D.C.

The youth leadership track culminates with the Young Leadership Cabinet, a professional leadership track within the community of Jewish federations, to try to develop future leaders of the community, Silverman said, pointing out that the current chair of the organization’s board came out of this cabinet group.

TribeFest is billed as an event for 22- to 45-year-olds with attendees mostly in their late 20s and early 30s — an average age of about 31. “That is perfect because they’re just entering communities, and just starting to think about where they’re ultimately going to end up as adults and put down roots; those kinds of decisions in their life,” Mann said. “It’s a great time to have this as part of that decision-making process, how they want to engage in the Jewish community and what’s meaningful about Jewish communal involvement.”

Many attendees go to TribeFest through organizations with which the federation partners, such as Jewish fraternities or sororities. This year’s TribeFest had more than 90 partner organizations.

It’s not set up like an ordinary conference, according to Mann, but “more of a lounge, a marketplace of ideas. What they consider main stage events feature TED-like presentations, with messages about connections and collective, meaningful action.

Smaller stages offer intimate opportunities to engage with ideas and organizations that partner with the federation. Several tracks focus on topics such as social justice, faith and spirituality, political action, and innovation.

While TribeFest portrays a message about the power of the collective, Silverman said the message about the power of the individual is also important. “How you choose to connect is up to you. I hope people will choose to connect, and make it an ongoing part of their lives,” he said. TribeFest wasn’t intended to be a Las Vegas conference it just so happened that the first one, held two years ago, was in Las Vegas. Organizers plan to alternate the event city every other year after this year. Sin City was selected because it’s a destination, and the first rule of conferences is getting people there, Mann said. “Indeed, it was a draw. We surveyed folks after last year’s conference and the location was a primary reason. People said they wouldn’t have come ordinarily,” she said.

While it was exciting to have two consecutive years of TribeFest and create some energy as an outreach opportunity and engagement tool, Silverman hopes the alternating years now will create some anticipation for the conference.

The power of TribeFest is in the follow-up and what happens in communities, which is why the Federations provide a manual to communities with suggestions that focus on how to keep TribeFest going during the year as well as how to encourage attendees to move into the next stage or take a more leadership-oriented step like a summer trip to Israel.

“The idea is to move people along a continuum of participation as they develop,” said Mann. The theory behind this and other engagement programs that are purely outreach in their design, she said, is that people need to feel affinity first, so it becomes personal to them to sustain the Jewish community, and participate in a philanthropic way that’s meaningful for them.

“It requires patience but also tracking and traction so we can follow their experience, and gradually move them into positions where they’re becoming financial supporters of the organization,” Mann said. “We don’t want to have the first thing they hear from the Federation is, ‘Give us a gift,’ without first connecting in a way that is meaningful,” she said. When Jewish Federations surveyed this group, a lot of them have become donors one way or another but many of them said they never would have thought of it as a place for them had it not been for TribeFest.

“Because this is for such a targeted consumer segment, we’ve really empowered our young leaders to run with this, from point of name, thematic approach, programmatic strategy, etc., because it really needs to be through the lens of that consumer segment,” said Silverman. “It’s an opportunity for them to be creative, innovative and to take leadership roles,” he said.

“The more opportunities we have as a community to bring together cohorts of young people…to create education, be inspired, have fun, be exposed to the amazing things going on in the Jewish community — locally, nationally, and internationally — is really something we hold dear to continue to build up this platform,” said Silverman. NPT