SXSW: An In-Gathering Of Jewish Innovation

by Rabbi Mordechai Lightstone

I’m not sure when I first heard about SXSW – but by the time Foursquare was launched in 2009 – I knew I wanted to take part in the festival. After all, what could be more exciting than spending a weekend with innovators, social-media mavens, bloggers and geeks of all types?

What didn’t occur to me was the deep Jewish nature that runs down the heart of the festival.

When one thinks about it though, what could be more Jewish than a weekend spent thinking about the future, schmoozing with “machers” and eating plenty of good food? (Though even a kosher barbecue unlocks the Porky badge – come on @dens – where’s the Hot Pastrami on Rye badge?)

When I was offered a chance to speak on the Judaism 2.0 panel the following year with fellow ROI’er Chaviva Galatz, I jumped at the chance. The panel was fascinating, the people we met were unique, and the experience presenting my own work, bringing the news and content of to the world, was an important lesson. That being said, beyond the panel, I discovered something more important – the chance to convene with other Jews at SXSW.

You see, days before leaving, I tweeted about making a kosher barbecue. The idea went viral, as it were, and some two dozen people ultimately joined us.

The next year, inspired by the experience, my wife and I decided to return to SXSW to host a Shabbat meal.

Seemingly, the idea of hosting a traditional Shabbat meal at a technology and digital communications festival seems almost contradictory. When a speaker gages the engagement of his audience not by how many people are looking up at him, but rather by their activity on their laptops, smartphones and tablets, the idea of a meal that shuns hashtags and trending topics seems out of place – perhaps even anachronistic.

Some 50 people joined us that year. For Shabbat this year, onto our chazaka year at SXSW and thanks in part to the ROI Micro grant, we hosted close to 70 people – with returnees telling us that a Shabbat meal, the opening night of SXSW – an event free of swag and live music (though with plenty of good food and drink) – was the highlight of their experience last year.

Why? Because during the information overload that is SXSW, a Shabbat meal gives participants the chance to pull back – to refocus on the individuals around them and connect in the analog. It gives SXSW participants the chance to do what they’ve wanted to do the entire time. Shabbat at SXSW offers an opportunity to network in the flesh and in real time, not based on presumptions and assumptions.

This does not detract from the digital experience of SXSW interactive – just the opposite – it gives a frame of reference to use as a guide while diving into the tumultuous, powerful, sea that is SXSW.

And it is this vision, this experience, that ties in so beautifully with ROI and the ROI community. Unfortunately, the demands of arranging the Shabbat Meal and of a three-week-old baby (‘Follow’ him – and his older brother – on Twitter!) made it very difficult to attend the various ROI – and general – events of SXSW. However, the time I did spend with other members of our special community – both old friends and new – reflects on the immense power in the ROI community. Like a Shabbat – a SXSW Shabbat – ROI gives community members (and through them, the world at large) the chance connect in the analog. We may all come from very different backgrounds, and have very different beliefs, but we see each other as individuals. We support each other and approach our shared passion for Judaism, life and everything else, holistically.

We are the ultimate SXSW startup – the human initiative.

Rabbi Mordechai Lightstone serves as a staff writer and heads up the social media initiative – the headquarters news site for the chabad-lubavitch movement.

Connected by the ROI Community of Jewish Innovators.