South by Southwest (SXSW) is in perpetual beta mode. Experimentation is at the core of the festival’s DNA. Eighty-five thousand people from the worlds of music, film and interactive media have been converging in Austin in mid-March for 30 years. SXSW is an example of the whole being greater than the sum of the parts, as each participant makes a unique contribution to the experience. This year’s attendees ranged from President Obama and the first lady to film director J.J. Abrams, chef-adventurer Anthony Bourdain and former Wikimedia Foundation exec Lila Tretikov.
While there is certainly a range of Jewish speakers who discuss an array of secular topics at SXSW, there are very few faith-oriented events that take place at the festival itself or even on its sidelines.
A couple of Fridays ago at the festival, I had the opportunity to demo my own idea for spurring growth in Jewish life and identity through an event that I called a “Dinner of Dinners.” The evening was based on a concept that I am passionate about: the mass personalization of Judaism.
The question I sought to answer at SXSW was, “What is the most efficient way to embrace the flexibility of the Jewish faith and values to engage a diverse audience amid one of the busiest weeks on a millennial’s calendar?”
In thinking about capitalizing on the energy of SXSW, I drew inspiration from the past and the present. My great, great, great uncle, Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan, wrote in “Judaism as a Civilization: Toward a Reconstruction of American-Jewish Life” that, “Judaism is an evolving religious civilization … composed of language, culture, ethics, art, history and customs.” To put it in techie SXSW terms, the operating system of Judaism is written with diverse code from a wide range of components that draw from both sides of the brain.
Thanks in part to Lynn Schusterman, I’ve learned that the future of Judaism as a civilization is driven by “young people creating community in their own image.” Accordingly, it is up to us to study the diversity of Jewish expression that Rabbi Kaplan put forward, but also to follow our own interpretation to apply aspects of Jewish tradition in ways that feel natural for us.
The dinner event drew 160 people to the 150-person venue. Attendees arrived at dusk to a Victorian mansion. An interfaith and cross-cultural audience welcomed Shabbat through the melodies of Gal Friedman, who explained the meaning of each prayer and invited audience participation under starlight.
Following the service we convened the dinner. We drew inspiration from the fact that Judaism as a civilization is formed through a community of communities, so we developed programming with 15 influential table hosts to lead their groups through an intentional conversation about topics that mattered to them. Participants registered online before attending and were able to choose the conversations that they wanted to contribute toward.
David Yarus, co-founder of Jewish dating app JSwipe and the tech start-up mllnl, led a conversation about “Modern love: how digital leads to real life moments”; Megan Asha, creator of FounderMade and TechDraft, spoke about “Using insights from the Torah to navigate our tech-centric, often overly connected world”; and Maja Kermath, co-founder of Kor180, facilitated around “Making small actions that drive big and lasting change.”
It’s rare at SXSW, where people are perpetually double or triple booked, for people to stay in any one place for a long time; I was overjoyed that everyone stayed and enjoyed each other’s company. It’s a testament to the relevance of directed conversation and the appeal of making one-on-one relationships in a world of fleeting moments.
I attended the conference this year as a first-time speaker and discussed how professional athletes are taking control of their brand destiny through digital media. With talking points in mind, I led my table through an extended topic: “How athletes make the most of their off-season, and lessons from Sabbaths that aren’t once a week.”
We discussed a Gatorade brand experience that I had just come from a few blocks south. Gatorade came to SXSW to offer light through its brilliant use of virtual reality, 0developing sustaining drinks through electrolyte science and sustenance through a new line of packaged products. Sound a bit like the three blessings we say at Shabbat over light, wine and bread? That was the point!
Even athletes competing at the highest level benefit from a Shabbat in their own image. SXSW participants discovered that by powering down for a few hours on Friday night they were able to approach the festival with renewed strength.
What happens next? How do we, as Lynn Schusterman would say, “pay it forward?” It has already begun. By seeing the extendibility of the Jewish custom of Shabbat, we have already enhanced the mass personalization of Judaism.
Twenty attendees had never been to a Shabbat, another 25 hadn’t experienced Shabbat in a year, and a quarter of attendees had never been to Israel. Most of our guests left wanting more. It is up to us to harness our special Jewish operating system as a civilization and continue to push through product updates that resonate in a world that is in its own perpetuating beta.
Daniel Bloch Jeydel is an associate director with Neo@Ogilvy and serves as a board member of Saviv at Temple Emanu-El on the Upper East Side. He is an alumnus of Lynn Schusterman’s REALITY Tech, an immersive leadership development journey through Israel designed to inspire those at the forefront of the technology world.