Israel absent but festival-goers at Austin’s SXSW find Jewish events, connect at Shabbat gathering

Jewish ideas on burial and mourning, Holocaust education and Jewish-Latin culture make it on the bill for the Texas gathering

As the Israel-Hamas war and raging global antisemitism continue to dominate the news cycle and pop up at major international gatherings since Oct. 7 — from Sundance to the Oscars — the topic was largely ignored by the South by Southwest Festival in Austin, Texas, which kicked off on Friday.

Known as SXSW (or colloquially, “South-By”), the cultural gathering did not feature significant protests or demonstrations of any kind, save for  a small number of foreign bands canceling their appearances to protest one of SXSW’s sponsors, the U.S. military, for its support of Israel.

But while the the festival — in which filmmakers, musicians and other artists and innovators network, discuss and prognosticate — does not feature Israel-related content, it will include a number of Jewish events — some official, some not — as well as Shabbat gatherings on the sidelines.

On Saturday, the event “Are You Afraid to Die Alone? Why We Need Community Deathcare,” included Sarit Wishnevski of Kavod v’Nichum, a Jewish organization empowering and training members of a community’s chevra kadisha, a committee that cares for the deceased and comforts the living through Jewish rituals and traditions. (The recording is available online.) 

Tuesday’s schedule included “Bearing Witness: The Future of Holocaust Memory Through Immersive Technology,” a panel with two Holocaust survivors, a virtual reality filmmaker and a vice president of the Illinois Holocaust Museum, discussing three new virtual reality films depicting Holocaust experiences. And on Saturday, the festival will feature Flores Market: SXSW Jewish-Latin Market, a seven-hour event representing Jewish and Latin cultures: music from Mazel Tov Kocktail [sic] Hour and Conjunto Los Dos and a market with 40 vendors, including “art, tattoos, wine, food and popups.”

Flavia Weinstein Nestrovski, who lives in Sao Paulo, Brazil, was at the annual confab to make connections, find new clients and business opportunities and to get a glimpse of the future of marketing and communications. But she was also seeking Jewish content and presence at the festival. So when she found the Tech Tribe #OpenShabbat dinner — and its upwards of 300 guests — Weinstein Nestrovski told eJewishPhilanthropy it felt “like home away from home.”

“I was not expecting the amount of people that were there [at the dinner],” she told eJP. “Since I’m in the Jewish Brazilian community that comes to South-By, for me the biggest thing was to connect with other Jews [and] I got a chance to do it. It made me super happy.” 

For Rabbi Mordechai Lightstone, whose Tech Tribe — an affiliate of Chabad Young Professionals that creates events for Jews in tech and digital media — has convened this event for 13 years, that is exactly the point.

“Gathering at the Tech Tribe #OpenShabbat meal with hundreds of other Jews in the heart of SXSW has always been a powerful expression of Jewish pride and unity,” Lightstone said. “The importance of centering Shabbat in our lives is more important than ever post-Oct. 7. Shabbat has become a guiding light for so many Jews during this time,  to center their Judaism, and it’s an honor to create a platform for so many.” 

Earlier that evening, there had been another Shabbat event with a more secular flavor; while Tech Tribe’s Shabbat was largely unplugged — with a few renegade camera-toting attendees managing to capture some footage of the scene — attendees at #SXSWShabbat, provided live music and a standing-room crowd recording the goings-on on their phones. In addition to lighting candles, singing “Shalom Aleichem,” saying the blessing over challah, and providing a moment to honor the victims of Oct. 7, the first 100 registrants at that event received a custom kippah, bearing the SXSW logo.  

In some previous years, SXSW had hosted more significant Jewish content. The 2017 program featured Anti-Defamation League CEO Jonathan Greenblatt on antisemitism, rapper Kosha Dillz — who has since become a festival regular — doing Jewish rap and journalist Julia Ioffe sharing her experience as the target of digital hate after the 2016 election. 2022 saw a session on Judaism and psychedelics, and last year,  Second Gentleman Doug Emhoff spoke about being the first Jewish spouse of the U.S. vice president.

At last year’s SXSW, Rabbi Avi Winner, who runs marketing for Chabad headquarters and programming at Young Jewish Professionals of the Upper East Side co-created the Podcast Pickup Truck, a remote audio recording studio in the open bed of a pickup truck, to engage people in meaningful conversations on the street. The truck was back for a second year in 2024, with Winner and Rabbi Mendy Levertov of Chabad Young Professionals of Austin hosting interactions with both Jewish and non-Jewish festival-goers over the course of the conference.

“We had a podcast discussion about the spiritual responsibility of creators,” Winner said, noting that people, most of them in tech, film and music, were “very receptive and very positive in general.” The recordings will be available at some point in the future after they’ve been edited, Winner added.

Winner, Lightstone and Levertov also passed out ARKs (Acts of Routine Kindness yellow boxes shaped like Noah’s Ark), to remind people to center kindness and helping others. The ARKs made their appearance last year, but this year were on the official schedule as part of a meetup and idea hackathon, helmed by Lightstone and his wife Chana, who is Tech Tribe’s head of operations, to share and hone tools that help people to practice routine kindness toward changing the world.

“We had a lot of people putting on tefillin, and non-Jewish people saying they support us, the Jewish people and Israel,” Winner continued. “It’s important for people to connect to their heritage and find a way to make it personal to their lives today. The fusion of having a personal spiritual connection and knowing you’re a link in the chain is very empowering,” he said.