Emma Snyder Samuels

A tent for 1,200 Jews at TribeFest

The largest conference of young Jewish adults celebrated diversity, offered insights on prayer and rocked a riverboat

It’s March 16 and I’m on stage in New Orleans, looking out over 1,200 excited Jewish young adults. It’s the culmination of months of planning, and I’m the first speaker of the day. I take a deep breath and step to the microphone: “Good afternoon and welcome to TribeFest!”  The crowd cheers, I smile, and my co-chair David Kline seamlessly picks up our welcome speech.

So began TribeFest 2014, the largest conference of Jews ages 22-45, organized by The Jewish Federations of North America (JFNA). Now in its third year, TribeFest features inspirational speeches and informative workshops on political, spiritual, communal and cultural topics in the Jewish world. It’s also a gathering place for Jewish communal professionals and volunteers, innovators and teachers, artists and techies (check out the tweets at #TribeFest), and anyone searching for ways to connect with the greater Jewish community.

I made that connection in 2001, when a friend convinced me to sign up for a summer singles mission trip to Israel with Combined Jewish Philanthropies (CJP), Greater Boston’s Jewish Federation. I didn’t just meet my husband on that trip — I also found a community where I belonged, and where I could make a difference. After nearly a decade volunteering with CJP, I’m now on JFNA’s National Young Leadership Cabinet, a group of young leaders across North America helping to shape the next generation of Jewish philanthropy.

Our generation looks very different than previous ones — we come from diverse backgrounds and have a wide range of interests and perspectives. So, David and I worked to ensure that TribeFest had something for young Jews of all religious leanings and at any stage of life. We wanted participants to feel pride in being Jewish, and to know that wherever they are personally or professionally, there’s a home for them with the Jewish people.

One of our most popular break-out sessions featured two rabbis exploring new approaches to prayer and spirituality. With that session filling to capacity so quickly, it’s clear that there’s a hunger among young Jews to connect or reconnect with Judaism itself in myriad ways.

From creating more inclusive communities and spaces to developing Jewish philanthropy in the tech world, from understanding Israel’s political and social dilemmas to celebrating its role as the “start-up nation,” TribeFest had it covered. Writers and bloggers from New OrleansTorontoVirginiaLouisville,Phoenix and Baltimore, had it covered, too.

We also wanted TribeFest participants to feel the power and strength of community, and to know that when we come together, we really can move mountains. Our plenary speakers honed in on this theme, like Rabbi Sharon Brous of IKAR Jewish community in Los Angeles, who urged us to form deep, real, and meaningful connections with each other. Other headliners, like actor Joshua Malina, shared how their Jewish upbringing and pride in their identity inform their careers and lives today. Speakers from TribeFest sponsors JDate and Pfizer addressed the future of the Jewish people from social, medical and technological standpoints.

One of my TribeFest highlights was a morning of volunteering around New Orleans. There were five different community service projects, and I spent time with seniors at Kingsley House Adult Services. To see the diverse group say their breakfast prayers, to be a part of their moment of thanksgiving and to be welcomed into their city and into their lives reinforced the connections and bonds we all share, no matter our backgrounds.

In between all of the learning and the sharing, the networking and the schmoozing, and, of course, the riverboat brass band party, we also made time for a daily minyan, a megillah reading and a smashing Black and White Purim Ball.

TribeFest may have ended on March 18, but the experience hasn’t. We take that with us wherever we go. The excitement, joy and energy shared by hundreds of our peers become a part of who we are. I can’t wait to see what TribeFest participants do back home; I know that they’ll be a tremendous boost to their Jewish communities now and for years to come. And when we need to remember and recharge, there’s always our TribeFest final video:

About the Author
Emma Snyder Samuels is the Co-Chair of TribeFest 2014. She has served as a lay leader for Boston’s Combined Jewish Philanthropies for the past 12 years, including involvement in the Young Leadership Division and CJP’s Women’s Philanthropy. She received Boston's Young Leadership Award in 2011, and is an active member of JFNA's National Young Leadership Cabinet. Emma was recently selected as a member of the inaugural class of Chai in the Hub, the top 18 most influential young adults making a difference in the Boston Jewish community. Emma loves (not necessarily in this order): cooking, Baptiste Yoga, being a mom, the inspiration she gets from the people in her world, a nice glass of red wine, and most things Jewish.