The future has arrived and it looks a bit familiar, as Jewish kids are connecting through digital platforms, competing in virtual worlds and establishing friendships with the click of a button. If all that seems reminiscent of recognized norms, in which a preponderance of young adults employ smartphones, consoles and social media as mechanisms for creating community and finding entertainment, the nuance is in location, explained Lenny Silberman.
Nearly 1,600 Jewish kids, over the past two weeks, gathered in organized settings to play video games. The activities, facilitated by Lost Tribe Esports, occurred in designated spaces in Georgia and Michigan during the recent JCC Maccabi Games, an Olympic-style event welcoming thousands of North American Jewish teenagers.
“Fifty-three percent of the total athletes and artists at both sites in Atlanta and Detroit signed up to game with us,” said Silberman, Lost Tribe’s founder and CEO.
At both locations, a 21-station gaming center, with titles including Super Smash Bros. Ultimate, Rocket League, NBA 2K19 and Madden NFL 19, enabled teens to participate in exhibition style play and tournaments, with top finishers receiving medals, a first in Maccabi Games history.
Thousands attended the recent Maccabi Games, and although not everyone was interested in virtual play, Lost Tribe kept tabs on foot traffic. Between July 28 and Aug. 2, 3,221 people stopped in at Lost Tribe’s Atlanta site. Between Aug. 4 and 9, 3,106 people visited the Detroit venue.
Brian Schreiber, Jewish Community Center of Greater Pittsburgh’s president and CEO, marveled at last week’s turnout in Detroit.
“I saw filled rooms of kids interacting with each other. There are new totalities developing and it’s taking something that doesn’t always have the most positive connotation and turning it into an engagement opportunity,” said Schreiber.
Engagement is at the heart of the enterprise as Lost Tribe, by definition was created with an intention to reach unattached Jewish youth, echoed Silberman.
The difficulty of engaging Jewish teenagers is well reported. Jim Joseph Foundation found that more than 70 percent of Jewish students do not attend supplementary schools after grade 8, and by grade 12 only 14 percent “remain enrolled.”
Eileen Snow Price and Allison Boaz, both of Atlanta-based In the City Camp, similarly wrote in eJewishPhilanthropy that “90 percent of Jewish children aren’t going to Jewish overnight camp.”
“In 2008, when I left JCCA, people were talking about over 50 percent of Jewish teens being disengaged post bar or bat mitzvah,” said Silberman. “In 2019, people are talking about over 80 percent. There’s something wrong. If this was a business you would be out of business. No disrespect to any of the organizations, they’re doing their best, but to go back to my roots in Pittsburgh you have to go where the kids are at.”
Silberman’s approach to e-sports relies on more than three decades of prior Jewish professional experience. In 1984, Silberman began his career as director of sports and recreation at the Pittsburgh JCC. In 1987, he became director of Emma Kaufmann Camp. Between 1994 and 2008, Silberman served as continental director of the JCC Maccabi Games, and from 2008 to 2018, he was CEO of Henry Kaufman Camps.
Those undertakings have instilled a belief that “it’s all about engagement,” he said, but while penetrating the masses is critical, so too is the method. “It has to be authentic and fit into where these kids are at.”
Today, teenage gaming is virtually ubiquitous. Ninety percent of teens said they “play video games of any kind, whether on a computer, game console or cellphone,” and 84 percent said they “have or have access to a game console at home,” according to Pew Research Center.
Creating Jewish engagement through video games “is certainly an interesting opportunity to reach kids in different ways than we thought before,” said Schreiber, “but it’s going to take some work.”
Lost Tribe is partnering with Jewish educators to determine learning opportunities and outcomes and assess “how we bring Jewish into this space,” said Silberman, but certain difficulties exist. “You can’t do Jewish during the game. The game is the game. We also know that you can’t do Jewish if you don’t have any kids to do it with.”
Rony Kahana, an Israeli-born Carnegie Mellon University-educated associate producer at Big Huge Games, contrasted Silberman’s position with smaller titles and past experiences.
“The Shivah,” a 2006 point-and-click adventure game, re-released in 2013, allows players to embody Rabbi Russel Stone, a spiritual leader with struggling faith who is suspected of murdering Jack Lauder, a former congregant of Stone’s dwindling New York City synagogue.
“Vampire: The Masquerade — Redemption” is a 2000 role-playing game that includes an episode in the medieval Prague Jewish Quarter, where players acting as Christof Romuald, a deceased 12th-century French crusader who is revived as a vampire, seek counsel from Mendel, a deceased rabbi’s son, on how to defeat the Quarter’s ravaging golem.
In both games there is a realistic depiction or representation of something familiar that breaks the fantasy, explained Kahana. “For Jewish gamers,when they run into things like that it’s going to affect the way they look at things.”
For gamers, introducing Jewish concepts such as the act of sitting shiva or Jewish traditions like the golem, can prove educational. Potential issues arise, however, when the fantasy, or immersion, is broken and “when it’s something that touches your life,” continued Kahana.
In “Grand Theft Auto IV,” a 2008 action-adventure game, players can kill pedestrians and steal their money — usually $5 to $20. But when a player kills a rabbi (who is dressed in a white shirt, long black kapoteh, a yarmulke, and has a long gray beard) $50 to $200 is dropped. The larger amount of money may be a stereotypical Easter egg placed by game makers, suggested online fan posts.
Such a detail, given that “people do shoot Jewish people,” Kahana said, is disturbing. Jews are less likely to be depicted in video games, so “when you’re seeing a representative of yourself and what you’re familiar with in a game, it will have an impact.”
Location also plays a role, as games where players communicate on headsets can offer very different experiences based on who is playing and where they reside.
“I grew up in Israel and everyone I knew there was Jewish,” she said. Even without Jewish characters depicted on-screen, playing military games for us was different. My brother was in the military and when he played the games he would play them the way they would do exercises in the military.”
Silberman is intrigued by the possibility of reaching Jewish teens in faraway settings and gathering them for in-person gaming experiences. But Lost Tribe only features non-shooting titles in its mission.
“It’s just the right thing to do,” he said.
Between the recent Maccabi Games and a March 2019 appearance at a BBYO convention, Lost Tribe has already reached thousands of Jewish teens. The organization has amassed details on players’ ages, genders, contact information, location and engagement.
Moving forward, data collection will remain imperative as “we want to be able to ask the right questions and get the information that’s most helpful to the Jewish community,” said Silberman.
Determining that knowledge through the placement of pre – or post-game buttons along with links to Jewish programs, or creating a subscription-based model where players individually sign in, are different options under consideration.
Effective Jewish gaming “could be a real interesting possibility,” said Schreiber, but it will require thought, action and investment. “We have to try lots of different ways to reach the teens today because they don’t just follow the same path or the same path of 20 to 30 years ago. The way we engaged before were traditional youth groups and more formal Jewish educational pieces. Now we have to move in a lot of different directions. Everything has to build on the previous thing to really capture the totality of audience.”
For Silberman, the challenge is more than a game, and he is ready to play.
“We’re doing this for the right reasons: It’s not about video games, it’s about Jewish teen engagement. If we are going to lose that next generation, that’s not acceptable in my book.” PJC
Adam Reinherz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.