Young Tucsonans rock to Federation beat at Tribefest

Twenty-three young Jewish Tucsonans headed off to Las Vegas earlier this month — not to gamble, but to make up one of the largest delegations to Tribefest, the newly re-branded Young Leadership conference of the Jewish Federations of North America. “Connect, Explore and Celebrate” they did, along with more than 1,200 other attendees who were mostly in their 20s to early 40s. From March 6 to 8, they attended lectures, workshops and performances on everything from new trends in Jewish art to the 2012 elections to the etiquette of offering a “L’Chaim!”

Hershel Cohen with Israeli hip-hop violinist Miri Ben-Ari, who performed at the conference
(L-R) Cheryl Wortzel, David Plotkin and Brandon Apsell
(L-R) Angie Goorman, Julie Feldman and Melissa Goldfinger

“I loved being among a bunch of Jews, with other Jewish young professionals from all over North America, learning together and having fun,” says Tucsonan David Plotkin, 38, an architect. Although Plotkin has served on the steering committee of the Jewish Federation of Southern Arizona’s Young Men’s Group, he was among the 62 percent of participants who were attending their first national federation conference.

One session, “Punk Jews: Unconventional and Awesome Expressions of Judaism,” was “so interesting and enlightening because it promoted diversity among Jews through the arts,” he told the AJP. “On Saturday and Sunday nights they packed in great performers. It was very eclectic, which was very powerful. The arts are very important to me.”

Tribefest was a first step in what federation officials say is a new outreach strategy for the national federation organization. It is aimed at bringing in new blood along with the committed donors that were targeted by previous Young Leadership conferences.

“We’re not only satisfied, we’re thrilled,” said Joe Berkofsky, spokesman for the Jewish Federations of North America.

Results from 150 participants who took a post-conference survey showed that 30 percent of them were not already federation donors. Forty-two percent said they had never participated in or helped organize a program at their local Jewish federation and 45 percent had never served on a federation committee.

Tucsonan Melissa Goldfinger, 40, a former cardiac nurse, was also attending a national federation conference for the first time. She has served on the JFSA Young Women’s Cabinet, went on last summer’s Young Women’s Mission to Israel, and participates in the Mitzvah Magic program.

“I’m getting more involved with the Federation,” says Goldfinger. “I wanted to show my husband, who’s 13 years older, why I’m so committed to it. He got to see why I’m so jazzed.”

Goldfinger was particularly inspired by one speaker, Alina Gerlovin Spaulding, who emigrated from the former Soviet Union to the United States in 1979. “She’s like the poster child for federation. I was inspired hearing about what her family went through, and how federation went in there and got them out,” she says, adding that hearing Spaulding’s story was “perfect for people who didn’t know what federation does.” (Spaulding also spoke at “Connections,” the JFSA Women’s Philanthropy brunch, in 2009.)

Spaulding’s presentation affected other Tucson Tribefest attendees. “Alina’s family lost all privileges after her father, an Olympic skiing hopeful, broke his leg,” explains Rebecca Goodman, 31, JFSA leadership development and public relations director. “He had to wait eight days to be seen by a doctor. The family lost their apartment within a month” and they were no longer shielded from anti-Semitism.

Amy Solomon, 39, says she was sitting next to Goodman “bawling” at Spaulding’s talk. “It was profoundly moving,” says Solomon. “I had never met someone my own age who experienced so much discrimination because she was Jewish.”

JFNA representatives had traveled to the FSU to rescue the Gerlovin family. “I get choked up just talking about her,” says Solomon, adding that the Gerlovins “ended up in New Jersey where I’m from.”

Recently divorced, Solomon, who works in the sales department at Canyon Ranch, moved here in November “to start over. I went to Tribefest to explore my heritage, how to get involved and find out what the opportunities are. I was pleasantly surprised by what Federation does,” she says.

“I don’t know how I’m going to get involved yet but I want to be immersed in my Judaism. I was fortunate growing up and it’s time to give back,” explains Solomon. “I became a Bat Mitzvah but I was more interested in my social life. My parents didn’t send me on a mission to Israel. I went to Cancun for spring vacation.”

Tribefest also served as a social gathering place, says Goldfinger. “It was inspiring to see all these young Jews coming together. For all the single Jews who were there, there was the opportunity to meet their beshert.”

Politics and Judaism are what interest 24-year-old Hershel Cohen, a University of Arizona graduate student in audiology who has served on the Young Jewish Tucson and UA Hillel Foundation boards.

“In Tucson lately, speaking your mind can get you shot, quite literally,” says Cohen, referring to the Jan. 8 shooting in which six people were killed and 13 wounded, including Rep. Gabrielle Giffords. “Gabby has roots in the Tucson Jewish community. I didn’t leave my house for a week after she was shot. I’ve always kept my secular and non-secular life separate but going to Tribefest was a way to combine democratic and Jewish values.”

One of the confab’s highlights for Cohen “was having a conversation with [Rep.] Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.) at a schmoozing session.”

“Right now in Tucson we’re not represented in Congress,” he explains. “I told her that I appreciate her representing our voice of reason. She told me that she’s doing her best to make sure Gabby’s constituents are represented.”

Cohen also enjoyed hearing the Jewish owners of two pro-football teams, the New England Patriots and Minnesota Vikings, speak of their own Jewish journeys. Patriots’ owner Jonathan Kraft told of his father “sneaking notes under his pillow” so that he and his brother could sometimes get out of Hebrew school and go to football games instead.

The nurturing environment at Tribefest “where people were willing to listen rather than spiel their own political rhetoric gave me my voice back,” says Cohen. “It gave me courage.”

With so much negativity in the world, adds Goldfinger, “Federation is there” as a force for good. “Whether it’s in Japan or [Hurricane] Katrina, we need to give back and make the world better for everybody.”

JTA correspondent Sue Fishkoff contributed to this article.