I’m sitting in a ballroom at the Mandalay Bay Resort in Las Vegas, where more than 1,100 young Jews from across North America have gathered for three days of networking, engagement and fun.
The idea, as a I reported last week, is to reach people in their 20s, 30s and 40s in a new way, rather than just forming junior fundraising groups, and make it cool to not only be Jewish but to do Jewish, taking a role in the course of their communities.
For some it will be three days of boozing and shmoozing, maybe some gambling and on occasional panel discussion. But the substantive events I have seen here so far and the ballroom-filling main events have been pretty well attended, and judging from crowd reaction to applause lines, the speakers are having the intended inspirational effect.
At the moment I’m listening to Alina Geriovin Spaulding, born in the Ukraine, recount how Jewish activists in America saved her family after her father, a Soviet Olympic skier, broke his leg in an accident and therefore became useless to the Soviet government. Denied medical treatment because he is Jewish, they were forced to fund his surgery themselves, but eventually were able to emigrate here with the help of the American Jewish Join Distribution Committee and others who took an interest in helping them and other refuseniks at the height of the Soviet Jewry movement in the 70s and early 80s.
Today, Gerlovin Spauding lives in Greensboro, North Carolina where she is director of communications for the American Hebrew Academy, a Jewish pluralistic boarding school. It was thanks to intervention by American Jews, including federations, that she and her brother, as well as their parents, arrived and thrived in America and received the education they needed to succeed, and her father received the life saving medical attention he needed from an anonymous donor. He’s even skiing again.
"Everything I have and everything I have ever contributed to another human being is because of people like you standing up for me at a particular moment in time," she said.
Other speakers have included Mayim Bialik, the former child actress who spent her teenage years playing "Blossom" on the NBC sitcom, who recounted how Judaism has given her a sense of purpose in life unadulterated by celebrity, and how as an adult she’s become even more observant, choosing to dress modestly in public. Mark Mezrich, author of "The Accidental Billionaire," the story of Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg that became the Oscar-winning film "The Social Network," offered a hilarious take on his own rise to prominence and Jewish connections. And members of the House Debbie Wasserman Schultz of Florida and Shelly Berkley, who represents Las Vegas, talked about the sacred task of bringing Jewish values into public iife. Schultz talked about her own battle with breast cancer and her efforts to educate Ashkenazi Jews like herself about their increased vulnerability and that it’s never too early to be tested.
Berkley talked about how her own family’s escape from Europe during the war led her to "give something back" to the U.S., which gave them haven, and in a ligher moment said "it’s true that I represent gambling, liquor and loose women," but she also represents "the fastest gowing Jewish community in America," now at about 70,000.
Leonard Stone, chairman of the board of the Las Vegas Jewish Federations, was the latest t express the mantra that hopefully, what happens here in Vegas won’t stay here.
"Make no mistake, we are the future of the jewsh world and it is our time to sieze the mantle of Jewish leadership," said Stone. "’ive had the time of my life seving as chair and I hope and expect many of you will be called upon to make similar commitments in your schools synagogues and communal organizations."