SXSW Roundup: Israelis, Jewish Leaders Represent the Tribe
By Tonyia Cone and Wendy Goodman
In March, about half a million interactive, film and music industry professionals from around the world connected at South by Southwest Conference and Festivals sessions, showcases, screenings, exhibitions and networking opportunities.
This year’s SXSW trend, announced at the conference’s Innovation Awards event, was Globally Connected. Within that theme, Israel, the worldwide Jewish community, and Austin Jewish leaders were well represented in all aspects of SXSW.
Austin Mayor Steve Adler joined Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio and Nicole Flatow, CityLab editor, on the panel Mayors Disrupting Locally, Leading Globally.
As a member of Mayors for Net Neutrality, Adler is one of 12 mayors who pledged to fight the effects of a recent U.S. Federal Communications Commission repeal of net neutrality protections.
Adler explained that as a local official, he benefits from being close to the people he represents and the bully pulpit.
To listen to the Mayors Disrupting Locally, Leading Globally panel, visit schedule.sxsw.com/2018/events/PP100169.
Rabbi Marie Betcher, consulting rabbi for Congregation Chaverim B’Kavanah, was part of the panel the Spirituality of Philanthropy. One of SXSW’s Faith-Based series sessions, the panel addressed the ways large organizations and individuals from many faith communities can identify a common vision for making the world a better place, partner to inspire real change and make a difference for even the most vulnerable populations.
Betcher, along with Miracle Foundation founder Caroline Boudreaux, Amy Lukken, joyologist and director of philanthropy at Tito’s Handmade Vodka, and Shamina Singh, president of the Mastercard Center for Inclusive Growth, also discussed the ways secular organizations can partner with religious organizations in mutually beneficial ways.
“It is very humbling to be on a panel with women from all parts of the country in high powered positions to discuss philanthropy. Then the inclusion of spirituality enters and I feel at ease,” said Betcher. “I was able to quote our Torah, describe tzedakah, tikkun olam, just for a start. It was enlightening to hear how our experiences were more similar than not.”
While the other panelists came to the subject from business backgrounds, and Betcher from a religious perspective, “the people in all of our spheres and in society as a whole struggle with the same issues,” Betcher explained.
“We came from different faith traditions and yet our outlooks were exactly aligned. We were blessed with an audience complete with people from Denmark and around the world. I left the hall feeling deeply connected to humanity and very hopeful for the future,” Betcher added.
To listen to a recording of Betcher’s session, visit schedule.sxsw.com/2018/events/PP98809.
Rabbi Neil Blumofe of Congregation Agudas Achim joined Jared Seide, executive director of the Center for Council, to discuss Finding Spiritual Community Both On and Offline.
The two spoke about the importance of connecting offline, in religious settings and beyond.
“We try to manufacture moments. We try to cultivate things and ideas. To me, the most important aspect of things is the surprise, is the unexpected or is the knowledge you get,” he said, explaining that community is important because of unplanned connections and moments, not just strategically planned experiences, that result.
To listen to a recording of Blumofe’s session, visit schedule.sxsw.com/2018/events/PP98810.
Sandy Dochen, corporate citizenship and corporate affairs manager at IBM, was part of the panel Texas Fight! How Businesses Battled Bathroom Bills, which included Belinda Matingou, vice president of member engagement at Texas Association of Business, Duff Stewart, CEO of GSD&M, and Deirdre Walsh, director of marketing at Silicon Labs.
Dochen explained how IBM became involved in the issue.
“It really does speak to our values, to our history of being out there before government law says you have to do XYZ,” Dochen said, explaining that inclusionary, diverse hiring practices lead to the strongest workforce.
To listen to a recording of Dochen’s session, visit schedule.sxsw.com/2018/events/PP77306.
Rabbi Rebecca Epstein, Congregation Beth Israel director of education, was part of the panel The Divine Feminist and Her Place in Modern Religion. Those on the panel discussed prevalent, faith-based sexism, the reframing of religious traditions with wisdom from modern feminism and the future of female leadership within religious institutions, as well as how people of different faiths can work together for gender equity and justice.
Epstein said, “It was an honor to share in leading the panel discussion with the three other distinguished faith leaders, and a privilege to be able to share my beliefs about the importance of bringing women’s voices and leadership into Jewish tradition. It was my first time attending SXSW, and it was very inspiring to see the incredible variety of offerings and to consider the many ways that faith intersects with politics, culture, art, music and even technology.”
To listen to a recording of Epstein’s session, visit schedule.sxsw.com/2018/events/PP99531.
Jayme Dale Mallindine, Temple Beth Shalom’s education coordinator, was part of the panel Gaming Religion: Finding Faith in Digital Games, with Greg Grieve, professor and head of the Religious Studies Department at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, Helen Osman, president of Greater Wings LLC, and Vit Sisler, assistant professor of new media studies at Charles University in Prague.
The panel discussed how video games can be used to address issues of tolerance, diversity and cultivate civility in our digital culture. Mallindine talked about how Temple Beth Shalom uses video games in the synagogue, including a Jewish-themed live action Pokemon Go game they used to reinforce what students learned throughout the year.
“Games leak into the way we teach,” she said, adding that the educators use games to teach Jewish content and values and that educators make games in Jewish environments, “games made Jewishly.”
To listen to a recording of the panel, visit schedule.sxsw.com/2018/events/PP80014.
In addition to local Jewish leadership, Israeli and Jewish experts and leaders impacted SXSW Interactive.
The panel The Last Survivors: Memories of the Holocaust included Pinchas Gutter, survivor of six Nazi concentration camps, Jason Charters, a founder, writer, director and producer at Riddle Films, Stephen Smith, executive director of the University of Southern California Shoah Foundation, and Jody Spiegel, director of the Holocaust Survivor Memoirs Program at the Azrieli Foundation.
Using Gutter’s experience as a case study, those on the panel discussed and demonstrated how Holocaust survivors’ stories can be more richly told through the use of various media, specifically the Azrieli Foundation's interactive documentary experience, "Re:Collection," and the USC Shoah Foundation's "New Dimensions in Testimony," an interactive, volumetric conversation with survivors.
When the stories are told in multiple ways, different details are revealed.
“These stories, each one, help to shape what was lost in the war,” said Spiegel. “We also underline to everyone who gets the opportunity to listen to a survivor, we are actually the last generation and the students who get to meet these survivors, they are the last generation that will ever get to meet a Holocaust survivor.”
To listen to a recording of The Last Survivors session, visit schedule.sxsw.com/2018/events/PP71546.
Andy Berke, mayor of Chattanooga, Tennessee, was part of the panel Local Leadership in the Wake of Terror. On July 16, 2015, a former resident of Chattanooga returned to attack two armed service recruiting centers, killing five. Berke, a Jewish American whose family had emigrated from Lithuania to escape religious persecution, vowed to protect Chattanooga’s small Muslim community from retaliation.
Joined by Orlando, Florida, Mayor Buddy Dyer; Mike Signer, former mayor of Charlottesville, Virginia; and Rebecca Skellett, senior program manager at the Institute for Strategic Dialogue managing the Strong Cities Network, Berke discussed leading a city through a terrorist attack and its aftermath.
Berke specifically addressed the need to always be accurate during a crisis, even as rumors are rampant and it can be hard to verify facts, the importance of taking into account the values of the city when responding to a situation, and the experience of taking care to not radicalize another person by including the Muslim community in the city’s response to the attack.
During a vigil after the attack, a leader of the Muslim community asked every Muslim there to stand. It was the last night of Ramadan, when the many Muslims at the vigil would usually instead be at their temples, but he said that night they were “Chattanoogans first, Muslims second.”
“You have to allow others to lead and to tell that story,” Berke said. “It was more powerful coming from him than it was from me.”
To listen to a recording of the Local Leadership in the Wake of Terror panel, visit schedule.sxsw.com/2018/events/PP76328.
At the session How Muslim-Jewish Dialogue Changes the World, Rabbi Adam Kligfeld, senior rabbi of Temple Beth Am in Los Angeles, and Maital Friedman, Muslim Leadership Initiative alumni director at the Shalom Hartman Institute of North America, were on a panel with Samar Kaukab, University of Chicago, and Nabila Mansoor of Emgage. Kaukab and Mansoor completed the 13-month Shalom Hartman Institute of North America’s Muslim Leadership Initiative.
Friedman introduced the panelists, who discussed their decision to “consciously embrace the inconvenient” and hear opinions other than their own, specifically Middle East conflict.
“There was an intentional weaving together, merging together, of we North American Jewish [and] Muslim leaders with the idea that if we could look each other in the eyes and connect on a heart level and recognize that we have a lot that there is worth exploring, that we can possibly build pods of connectivity in the United States,” Kligfeld said, explaining the Jewish-Muslim work he completed through the Rabbinic Leadership Initiative of the Shalom Hartman Institute, a 3- year immersive learning and training program for rabbis that focuses on rabbinic literature, Zionism, Jewish leadership for the 21st century and interfaith dialogue and partnership.
While Kligfeld expressed the belief that a first step toward progress is to connect over shared values and our experience as human beings rather than immediately trying to tackle the Israel-Palestine conflict, Kaukab and Mansoor explained that at a time when minorities, especially Muslims, are under siege in the United States, they need to bring their whole selves to these connections in order to have an honest, open conversation.
To listen to a recording of Kligfeld’s session, visit schedule.sxsw.com/2018/events/PP72187.
The schedule also included Senator Bernie Sanders and CNN anchor and chief Washington correspondent Jake Tapper, who discussed news, politics and the future of the country at the session CNN’s Jake Tapper in Conversation with Bernie Sanders; on the panel Uniting to Fight the -ists, -ites and the -phobes, Yair Rosenberg, senior writer at Tablet Magazine, discussed fighting online hate and creating safe online spaces where people can discuss, disagree and build relationships with those of other backgrounds; and the panel Human Rights Policy in a Connected World featured David Saperstein, former U.S. ambassador-at-large for International Religious Freedom and former director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism.
2018 SXSW Interactive Innovation Awards Finalists included ElliQ by Intuition Robotics, Ramat Gan, Israel, and San Francisco, California, recognized for Innovation in Connecting People, and BullGuard for Dojo by BullGuard, Redwood City, California, and Herzliya, Israel, recognized for Privacy and Security.
The SXSW 2018 Film Festival included several films relevant to Jewish culture.
The Foundation for Ethnic Understanding and its president Rabbi Marc Schneier debuted the world premiere of “Jinn.” Written by Niljla Mu’min, “Jinn” received the Narrative Feature Competition Special Jury Recognition for Writing.
“Jinn” underscores the FFEU’s mission of fighting Islamophobia and anti-Muslim bigotry and its desire to share messages of tolerance and dialogue. The organization has been working for almost three decades to strengthen cooperation between different communities, especially between Jews, Blacks and Muslims.
Schneier and the FFEU decided to produce this film specifically to relay the message of combating stereotypes and bigotry – notably toward Muslims – while helping them to take their narrative back and tell their own stories, to the millennial audience.
“Islamophobia and anti-Muslim bigotry have grown exponentially in the United States,” said Schneier, the film’s producer. “This film, which premiered at SXSW, is a reminder to men and women of all backgrounds that we share a common faith and a common fate. Our single destiny as Americans, must be to strengthen our bonds of concern, compassion and caring for members of the Muslim community as well.”
Directed by Israeli Oren Lavie, “Second Hand Lovers” was named Jury Award Winner in the Music Video Competition.
Screened in the Narrative Shorts Competition, “Shiva Baby” told the story of a college student who experiences a run-in with her sugar daddy while at a Jewish funeral service with her parents.
The Documentary Shorts Competition included “Death Metal Grandma,” which follows 97-year-old Holocaust survivor, Inge Ginsberg, who has decided to break out as a singer of Death Metal music;
“A Night at The Garden,” in which director Marshall Curry uses archival footage of a 1939 American Nazi rally in New York's Madison Square Garden mere months before the start of World War II; and “On My Way Out: The Secret Life of Nani and Popi,” the story of Ruth and Roman, Holocaust survivors married for 65 years.
YouTube’s Global Head of Music, Lyor Cohen, gave the Music Keynote. Cohen, an American music industry executive actively involved in hip-hop for more than 30 years, was born in New York to Israeli immigrant parents.
New Jersey native and Jewish hip-hop lyricist Kosha Dillz, née Rami Even-Esh, returned this year to SXSW, the festival that helped ignite his musical career. As part of his South By circuit, Kosha Dillz along with promoter Adam Swig hosted a uniquely Austin Shabbat gathering at Empire Control Room and Garage’s outdoor stage Friday evening, March 16. In observance of Shabbat, Kosha Dillz led the audience in candle lighting, a recitation of Kiddush and the HaMotzi blessing before sharing wine and challah with more than 100 excited fans. As the sun set on Austin’s downtown skyline, Kosha Dillz kicked off the night with a freestyle rap that was funny, spiritual, interactive and in three languages: English, Hebrew and Spanish. The audience cheered, laughed and joined with him in a what can only be described as a joyous song-fest, niggunim.
"Personally, I think I am just turning a corner in my career. It has been my best SXSW yet," described Kosha Dillz.
Currently residing in Los Angeles, Kosha Dillz has performed with the likes of Matisyahu, members of the Wu Tang Clan, Snoop Dogg and has released several albums. He raps about personal relatable life experiences both funny and serious, Jewish and non-Jewish. "We come from an Israeli family. I think my topics within that being said have everything to do with maintaining integrity, making you laugh, never giving up hope, and always letting people know that I'm gonna win. If I think of all the stuff I have made, you can hear that echo through the tunes," he explains.
Tel Aviv-based indie folk pop band Lola Marsh, spearheaded by singer Yael Shoshana Cohen and instrumentalist Gil Landau, made their SXSW debut at Maggie Mae’s Rooftop March 15.
Cohen’s delightfully uncommon, sultry vocals, which occasionally involve whistling like on song “Wishing Girl,” create a warm and bright experience. Coupled with Landau’s multi-instrumental grooves and sweet harmonies, along with the band’s smooth rhythms, Lola Marsh is a feel-good group with poetic charm and cheerful delivery that captivates the audience with their songs of love, life and relationships.
During their close-out show at Swan Dive on March 17, Cohen jumped into the crowd connecting fans hand-to-hand in a circle dance. The crowd cheered for an encore.
Released last year, the band’s stunning debut album Remember Roses features 13 enchanting folk pop tracks including singles “You’re Mine” and “Wishing Girl.”
The President Lincoln
Indie-rock band The President Lincoln performed their SXSW finale daytime set on March 17 to an eager crowd at The Austin Beer Garden Brewing Company in South Austin. Inspired by his family’s Polish roots, singer songwriter Alex Maws named his six-member band The President Lincoln after the ocean liner that transported his grandfather from the old country to New York City in the early 1900s. Further motivated by the ship’s historic backstory, Maws writes about themes of identity, migration and refuge in his music.
In addition to leading The President Lincoln, Maws works as a Holocaust educator at the Association of Jewish Refugees, which also inspires his music.
“In Holocaust education, one of the key principles educationally is about asking the questions, not always coming up with comfortable answers. I try to bring a lot of that same type of thinking into my songwriting,” said Maws.
The President Lincoln released their sophomore album earlier this year entitled Pilgrims and Aliens, an enjoyable roots-rock showcase of meaningful stories, political references and earthy melodies led by Maws’s husky, warm vocals.
As for Maws’s experience at SXSW, he explained, “Austin is such a friendly, welcoming and lovely place. I love it and would love to come back.”
Charlie Faye & The Fayettes
Go-go boots, miniskirts, bee hives and sweet harmonies! Austin-based Charlie Faye & The Fayettes bring a modern take on 1960s girl groups like Martha and the Vandellas, The Shirelles and The Ronettes. Their SXSW finale performance at Continental Club March 17 had the crowd on their feet “twisting the night away” to soulful, groovy rhythms—a welcomed, energizing sound of present day.
Similar to musical themes of the 1960s, Charlie Faye & The Fayettes’ song lyrics don't shy away from topics of love and universal issues.
Faye explained, “I also try to write about things that are socially relevant today; for instance, our song ‘Eastside’ is about the gentrification of the east side of town, and what happens when neighborhoods are in that state of change.”
The group consists of lead vocalist and songwriter Charlie Faye with singers BettySoo and Akina Adderley. Members of Charlie Faye & The Fayettes represent a diverse mix of cultural backgrounds: Jewish, Korean and African-American.
“We may all come from different backgrounds, but share a deep love of the same music. I'm really proud of the fact that we represent a cross section of American women, and can serve as role models for young girls who want to be musicians. I think one of the best things about music is that it can really bring together people who might otherwise think they're very different from each other. Music can almost always bridge the gap,” said Faye.
Yemen Blues, featuring Omer Avital
Israel-based band Yemen Blues, featuring Omer Avital, fuse contemporary and traditional ethnic and religious musical influences with funk, blues, jazz and African rhythms. Their distinct sound includes lead singer Ravid Kahalani’s beautifully spiritual chants, multilingual vocals and a dynamic arrangement of percussion, horns, keyboard and guitar captivating the audience at their SXSW kickoff show at Flamingo Cantina on March 15.
Kahalani’s Jewish Yemeni roots and the diverse cultural backgrounds of the Yemen Blues band members lay the foundation for a powerful, enchanting and spirited ensemble that transcends musical boundaries.
Their latest album, “Live in Tel Aviv,” features nine songs performed during the band’s 2012 world tour. The album beautifully showcases the mesmerizing voice of Kahalani and the modern joyful vibrations of middle eastern rhythms.
Each year, the SXSW Art Program creates a platform for visual artists to connect with international film, music and technology leaders by showcasing innovative projects and hosting discussions.
Israeli multidisciplinary artist Ronen Sharabani and his large-scale, interactive video installation at the Austin Convention Center, Conductors and Resistance, headlined the SXSW Art Program.
The site-specific installation was composed of imagery shot at Sharabani’s Tel Aviv studio, which was once an active and flourishing weaving factory. The installation’s images depict a weaving machine and woolen yarns, that were left behind, alongside electric wires, insinuating the inherent, structured, confusion between conductors and resistance.
Sharabani sought to use this particular confusion between conductors and resistance to call upon viewers, who used their phones to become either conductors or resistance by moving the wires and cause electrical flashes and sounds through the exhibit, increasing the currents of action in regions of high resistance.
Sharabani was also part of the panel Feast of Resistance & Secrets: SXSW Artists in Dialogue, which posed questions about technology and explored themes of agency, autonomy and human-machine interaction in a technologically evolving world.
Networking and Socializing at SXSW
While The Dell Experience offered discussions, drinks and demos with Dell technology, creators and trailblazers throughout SXSW, New York-based Tech Tribe, a division of Chabad Young Professionals International, gave hundreds of locals and guests looking to unplug on Shabbat an opportunity to escape the chaos of SXSW, connect with other Jews in tech and digital media and enjoy kosher food and song at the un-networking event, #openShabbat.
Rabbi Mordechai and Chana Lightstone have brought Shabbat to the conference since 2011. Rabbi Lightstone explained that to spend Shabbat with Tech Tribe is not to escape the modern world, but to find deeper and more meaningful ways to engage with it.
“In effect, a seat at the #openShabbat table is to be at the nexus of all things past, present and future,” he said.
In addition to #openShabbat, Young Jewish Professionals Austin, Tech Tribe and Chabad Young Professionals International hosted Havdalah Happy Hour, a SXSW first attended by about 20 people.
“I think it was a wonderful highlight to my SXSW experience. The combination of music and community fit wonderfully with the festival, and provided a warm return from the rest and serenity of Shabbat to the joyous chaos of SXSW,” said Lightstone. “We definitely look forward to returning to Austin next year!” ■