It had been an embarrassingly long time since I left my time zone and my recent trip to Las Vegas not only moved my body several thousand miles. It also moved by heart and challenged my mind.
Where did I go? To TribeFest. Imagine about 1,300 Jews aged about 22-45 from across North America gathered in Las Vegas to discuss the issues affecting our community (and, in large part, speaking intelligently about them), networking, socializing, and, of course, partying. That was TribeFest. It was organized by the National Young Leadership division of the Jewish Federations of North America.
I left for JFK International Airport on the morning of Saturday, March 5, 2011. I parked off-site and told the shuttle bus driver to take me to Delta domestic departures. I wasn’t paying attention to terminal numbers. When I got off the bus at what turned out to be Terminal 3, there were no other vehicles dropping people off and when I stepped inside I was the lone traveler. There were about a dozen or so Delta employees for just me. I felt kinda bad because they were just standing there and I know how to operate the kiosks. By the time I got to the security line, there were only a couple of other people in the area. This is at about 9 in the morning! Weird.
As I said, I hadn’t been paying attention to terminal numbers, so I didn’t even know what terminal I was in until after I passed security and asked a gate worker, and I really only asked so I could “check in” on Facebook on my shnazzy new Verizon iPhone. So, I checked in and followed the signs to my gate, which I later learned only from looking at the terminal maps in the back of the Delta in-flight magazine was actually in Terminal 2. Anyway, I wasn’t lost or late. So, no worries. At Terminal 2, there were all of these iPads around for people to just use for free and surf the web, play checkers, or tic-tac-toe on. Kinda neat.
I bought a curried chicken wrap at the airport Balducci’s to have for lunch on the plane. It turned out to be quite yummy. On the flight, I was in the middle seat of a 737 and noticed that the woman sitting to my left was wearing a Hamsa necklace and had pulled up the Mandalay Bay website. So, I asked if she was going to TribeFest and it turned out that, not only was she going to TribeFest, she was performing at TribeFest! Her name is Vanessa Hidary, and markets herself as the Hebrew Mamita (her website HERE). So, when we landed we shared a cab to the hotel. More about her later.
While waiting at baggage claim, though, she asked if I had noticed something weird that I had, indeed, noticed on the plane. There was a woman, probably about 30-something and a man, about 60-something, who, at first glance appeared to likely be daughter and father. Then they were standing in the aisle and hugged in a way that really didn’t look like the way a daughter and father hug and then they kissed in a way that a daughter and father definitely do not. Yeah, we were both weirded out, but also comforted that we were each not alone in our assessment of what had happened.
So, off to the hotel. Our accommodations were at THEHotel at Mandalay Bay. There’s no typo there and if you’re trying to get there or direct someone there from within Las Vegas by cab, we were told by our cabbie to just say “THE HOTEL.” I was on the 33rd floor, with an unusually long room number – 33-802. No, there aren’t a zillion rooms per floor. My guess was that the 8 is to make sure there is no confusion between a room number at Mandalay Bay and a room number at THEHotel. Anyway, it was not just a hotel room, but a genuine suite with one a half bathrooms.
Everything in your room is THEThis and THEThat. The list of TV channels and radio stations has a column for “THETube” and “THETunes” and the writing pad is “THEPAd.” Well, that continues with the toilet paper. Witness “THEtp.”
After checking into my hotel room, I decided to get to know my way around a bit and to pick up my wristband for the host community event (more on that later). I passed Aureole, a wine lounge with a tower of wine that the staff needs elevators or microlifts (not a real word) to access.
After taking care of that, I went back to my room to relax a little and shower. Then I went back downstairs and grabbed some sushi at Mizuya. It was just eh. I can get sushi that it SO much better for much less money back here in New Jersey and across the river in Manhattan.
Anyway, after that, I took care of my TribeFest registration – picking up my name badge, tote bag, and t-shirt, etc. That way, I wouldn’t have to worry about it or wait on a line in the morning. You see, I had actually arrived a day early so I could attend the Vegas Host Community Event. So, I brought my stuff up to the room and then got in a taxi to go down the strip (or up the strip?) to Encore. The Jewish Federation of Las Vegas was having a welcome party at the Surrender nightclub there. For those who don’t know, Encore is a second hotel next to the Wynn.
When we entered, we got to get our photos taken with a showgirl.
There were also these sparkly dancers.
When you walk through Surrender, you end up in an outdoor pool area.
The lights change color and it’s neat. Check out this short video.
It turned out that Surrender was also hosting the Celebrity Apprentice launch party that night. Lil Jon took over as DJ eventually. Unfortunately (or perhaps fortunately), I missed seeing Gary Busey pole dancing.
A bunch of us had had our fill at Surrender and made out way through the fire hazard of people back toward the hotel entrance to get cabs back to THEHotel.
So, that was Saturday night. When I got back to the hotel at 2-something, I went to sleep.
I was doing well with the whole sleeping thing until my local Duane Reade’s automated system called at about 7:30 a.m. on Sunday, March 6, 2011 to remind me that I had a prescription to pick up. It’s just for seasonal allergies. Don’t worry. I’m fine. But I was now awake and there was no getting back to sleep and my body thought it was somewhere between 7:30 and 10:30. So, I tried to stay in bed for a little while, but I then brushed by teeth and threw on some clothes and went downstairs and had breakfast at Red White and Blue.
After that, I went back up to my room, got back in my pajamas and back into bed, and turned on Law & Order on TNT. I actually got back to sleep for a few minutes. Eventually I showered and wandered downstairs and got some tea at Starbucks. I tried their “Refresh”tea. It is actually quite refreshing for the under-rested and jetlagged (my spellcheck says it should be jet-lagged, but I’m ignoring its advice) traveler. There, I ran into someone I’d met at the party Saturday night. We walked together and came upon more people who were at the party. The four of us went to Border Grill for lunch. I had the Chicken Tinga Empanadas (citrus chicken, chorizo, roasted poblanos, oaxacan cheese, apple slaw, pumpkin seed mole). They were yummy.
After lunch, we made our way to the Main Stage Opening Act, the official beginning of TribeFest.
The first performer was the aforementioned Vanessa Hidary (aka Hebrew Mamita). She delivered a bold, brave, and provocative spoken word performance that addressed the issues of racism, sexism, anti-semitism, and the Holocaust.
We then heard from Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz. The Florida Democrat is a survivor of breast cancer (which she beat while in office) and does not shy away from a fight. She’s also a lot shorter than I expected. I see her on Hardball all the time, so it was neat getting to meet her.
After that, we heard from actress Mayim Bialik, who many of us grew up watching on Blossom and who now has a recurring role on the hilarious CBS show The Big Bang Theory,where she plays scientist Amy Farrah Fowler.
She talked about growing up as an actress, exploring her Judaism in college, and how she practices it now. For one thing, she does not wear pants in public. It was fascinating and entertaining. You can read some of her remarks HERE.
There were other speakers, plus the singing of the American, Canadian, and Israeli national anthems and then we went across the hall at the Mandalay Bay Convention Center to the “Big Show” room, where there were booths for different organizations (plus warm pretzels).
After that, we had the first of our breakout sessions. I chose to go to Jewpardy. Yes, it’s exactly what it sounds like – Jeopardy! with Jewy clues. It was fun at first, but I never got picked to play. 😦 I would have done really well! There were three rounds and the winners of each of those rounds competed in a fourth round to determine the champion. Sarica, one of the friends I made at TribeFest, won.
The grand prize was a Mel Brooks DVD box set.
After Jewpardy, I eventually made it back up to my room to rest up a little before coming back down for the first “Big Show Mash-Up” event. There was cocktail hour-type food along with at least four open bars and musical performers, including “hip hop violinist” Miri Ben-Ari. She had plenty of energy and everybody loved her!
After the Big Show Mash-Up, a lot of TribeFesters made their way to The Mix, a club at the top of THEHotel.
The view was impressive.
There are small windows above the sinks in the bathroom at the Rainbow Room in Rockefeller Center, but the bathrooms at The Mix are officially the most insane I have ever seen. I neglected to take a photo from the men’s room, but fortunately my new friend Deb had the good sense to snap one in the identical ladies’ room.
Yes, that’s a floor to ceiling window.
After 11pm, there was free admission for TribeFest participants at the Lavo nightclub at the Palazzo. I made my way there at about 1 a.m. I shot this short video. Most of the time there wasn’t this interesting.
On Monday, March 7, 2011, our first main stage speaker was Las Vegas Mayor Oscar Goodman.
We also heard from Ben Mezrich.
Ben wrote The Accidental Billionaires: The Founding of Facebook, A Tale of Sex, Money, Genius, and Betrayal. That’s the book that Aaron Sorkin’s The Social Network was adapted from. Though, the truth is that Sorkin started writing The Social Network before The Accidental Billionaires was finished. His screenplay was initially based on Mezrich’s book proposal and the two often compared notes. Mezrich spent months with Facebook co-founder Eduardo Saverin and the two have not spoken since the book’s publication.
We then heard from an amazing woman named Alina Gerlovin Spaulding. She told the story of her family’s journey from the Soviet Union to Passaic, New Jersey with the help of the Joint Distribution Committee. As if that wasn’t enough, while running a boarding school in Greensboro, North Carolina, she ended up heading to Moldova to coordinate the running of a summer camp. The staff driver there told her that he had an amazing daughter. She was used to hearing that from every parent she met, but then he told her something she was not used to hearing, that as a Jewish female, his daughter had no future in their country. Well, (after a phone call with her husband) Alina brought the young girl home with her and later brought over her sister. Both are doing quite well here in the states. Alina and her husband also have a child that was, as I believe she put it, “acquired by more traditional methods.” She also brought up the idea that every good deed is an act unto itself. If you decide to go to Shabbat services one Friday, that is significant. If you don’t go next week, it doesn’t negate that you went the week before. Food for thought (and there was a lot of that at TribeFest).
We also heard from Rep. Shelley Berkley, a Democrat who represents Las Vegas.
After this set of speakers, we went on to our second breakout session. I chose one called Faces of Israel: Exploring Religious Pluralism, Civil Liberties and the Future of Israel as a Jewish State. It was led by a woman named Amy Beth Oppenheimer, who made a documentary on the subject. It focused on the role of the Chief Rabbinate and how it is quite controversial to many. Also a source of controversy is the Supreme Court, which will, at times, overrule the Chief Rabbinate.
Conversions performed by non-Orthodox rabbis are not officially recognized in Israel. Technically, it’s illegal for Conservative and Reform rabbis to perform weddings in Israel. Intermarriage is also illegal in Israel, but the state recognizes marriages performed elsewhere in the world. So, if an Israeli Jew wants to mary an Israeli Christian, the two will often travel to Cyprus to get married. The same is true in Lebanon. Of course, the question is, if Israel is the Jewish state, should religion dictate who one is allowed to marry? Who should Israel count as Jewish? Did you know that you actually only need one Jewish grandparent to be automatically allowed entry into Israel under the right of return?
After that, we had our main stage lunch event. If you’re wondering, there is potato salad and cole slaw below the chips and turkey wrap.
First, we heard from Rep. Joe Heck, a Republican representing Nevada’s 3rd Congressional District.
Then there was a discussion moderated by sports broadcaster Jon Frankel. The two guests were Mark Wilf, President of the Minnesota Vikings, and Jonathan Kraft, President of the New England Patriots.
Did you know that Tom Brady has gone on trade missions to Israel and prayed at the Western Wall? Eventually, they opened up for questions, but would not answer any about the NFL labor talks.
After that, it was on to the third breakout session. I chose What Does It Mean To Be Jewish In The 21st Century? It was led by Rabbi Laura Baum and Rabbi Robert Barr.
It was a thought-provoking discussion and there was no where near enough time to get at all of the issues. Who is Jewish? Do you need a Jewish mother or just to identify yourself as Jewish? What is needed for a Jewish community? How important, if at all, is the synagogue? How do you avoid turning people off to their Judaism while they’re young? Do you need to disconnect from the modern world on the Sabbath? (Just to name a few)
After the session, I was going to go over and briefly speak to Rabbi Barr about the issue of Kashrut. You see, I don’t keep Kosher (which you know if you’re a regular reader of my blog or viewer of my Facebook photos). I didn’t grow up in a Kosher household and neither did my parents, and I’m really happy about that. There is so much delicious and interesting food out there. I see no reason for my religion to rule what I eat. Of course (well, perhaps not of course), I do keep Kosher for Passover and fast on Yom Kippur. I don’t believe you need to keep Kosher to consider yourself a good Jew.
At any rate, what had been intended as a brief discussion ended up becoming a nearly hour-long (I think) discussion of a variety of issues amongst several of us who had stuck around. This included whether it is vital to attend services. My family and I go to High Holiday services, but on Yom Kippur, my dad and I don’t stick around for Yizkor. Though each of us has different reasons for it, we share the time together while my mom and brother stay inside. We usually go for a walk down the street and while we aren’t praying, we are having a form of Jewish bonding between each other.
Also discussed was G-d himself (or herself). For I have recently come to realize that it is quite possible that I don’t actually have such a strong belief in G-d, but I certainly have a very strong belief in my Judaism. I’m no atheist, but, for me, Judaism isn’t so much about G-d as it is about a strong connection to our traditions, values, community, and the continuity of our people. Some of that connection to my Judaism, of course, comes from the fact that my mom’s family survived the Holocaust. Well, some of them did. Among those who didn’t was my mom’s father’s brother who died of starvation in the Lodz ghetto along with their parents. My Hebrew name Eliyahu Moshe, comes from him. My mother’s grandparents died in the camps. May they all rest in peace. The Moshe part comes from my father’s mother’s mother Miriam.
So, when this after-session discussion broke up (a break-up largely driven by people coming in to take over the room), I went upstairs to try and nap a little before the evening activities, which included another big show mash-up event, with more food and open bar. It featured a performance by comedian Joel Chasnoff. But the highlight was the band Yemen Blues. The leader is named Ravid Kahalani. He grew up in a Yemenite family in Israel. I loved the energy and the instrumentation. If you hear about them performing in your neck of the woods, check them out! Here are some photos, plus a video.
After that, TribeFest took over the bar area at China Grill. There were free hors d’oeuvres.
On Tuesday, March 8, 2011, we had our final breakout session. I attended one called Gonzo Judaism: Brash, Bold, and In Your Face. It was led by a Rabbi Niles Elliot Goldstein.
His whole idea was a counterculture do the opposite thing. For example, he was with two others on a journey into the Mongolian desert and approached a village. Instead of being defensive against these strangers, the villagers welcomed them in, as Abraham did. But the thing was it was a very long presentation without a lot of ways to apply it to my daily life. I actually wish I had attended Improv 101: How Thinking On Your Feet Can Help You Onstage, in the Boardroom, and in the Community. I heard it was great and featured a lot of word association. It was actually my first inclination. Need to stop overthinking.
After that session, we had our final main stage event, which officially closed TribeFest.
We heard from Jewish boxer Yuri Foreman.
We also heard from Sonal Shah, Director of Office of Social Innovation and Civic Participation at the White House.
After that, some of my friends and I had a post-TribeFest lunch at Burger Bar in Mandalay Place. Yes, my post-TribeFest lunch was a cheeseburger with mozzarella and pesto sauce.
After lunch, we made our way outside by the pool, where we just sat and talked. I had a 4:45 p.m. flight, so I stuck around with my friends until 3:00 p.m. so as to minimize time at the airport and, more importantly, maximize time with my new friends.
So, at 3:oo p.m. I headed back inside to the taxi stand to get my suitcase and go to the airport and instantly, I started to feel withdrawal and a genuine sadness that the event had come to a close. It was so wonderful to be immersed in my community and 1,300 people gathered because we care about our community. I was truly moved. My eyes even teared up the first several times I told people about my experience. I hadn’t realized how disconnected I had become from my Jewish community and need to become more involved. There was a saying going around that it was hoped that, when it came to TribeFest, what happened in Vegas wouldn’t stay in Vegas. Well, so far, they’ve got at least one guy from New Jersey following that. I went to Shabbat dinner at the Moishe House in Hoboken last night and will continue to be more involved. I don’t have a game plan for that involvement yet, but it’s only Saturday and I’ve been pretty busy with work and errands since I got back very very early Wednesday (landed at 12:30 a.m. and was back at work at 4:45 a.m.). But I think last night was a good start.
If they hold TribeFest again next year, I’d certainly try to attend!
– Evan Bindelglass