When Paradise Elementary School students met participants of TribeFest, a convention of young Jewish professionals, for a reading program Monday, the freebie books and the backpacks the kids got to take home were, of course, cool.
The break from the usual classroom routine? That was probably pretty nice, too.
But what students probably didn't expect was how it all turned into something else over the course of one hour.
The event was intended to promote literacy, and TribeFest mentors and the children did, indeed, read. But many of the students and their mentors also talked about their families and where they live, and about what they're doing. Encouragement was offered. And friends were made.
Not bad for a Monday morning.
TribeFest 2012 began Sunday and ends today at The Venetian. The event, organized by The Jewish Federations of North America, brought about 1,500 people, ages 22 to 45, to Las Vegas from 81 U.S. and Canadian communities, said Elliot Karp, president and CEO of The Jewish Federation of Las Vegas.
"The whole purpose behind this three-day convention/gathering is for young Jewish adults to connect to their Judaism and the Jewish community," Karp said. "And one very important concept in the Jewish faith is what we call tikkun olam, which means 'repairing the world.'
"Now, it doesn't say 'repairing the Jewish world.' It says 'repairing the world.' It's the notion of community service."
So, when TribeFest 2012 was being planned, The Jewish Federation of Las Vegas urged The Jewish Federations of North America to include a community service opportunity for participants, "and we hit upon this program," Karp said.
That is why about 200 TribeFest participants boarded buses Monday morning for Paradise Elementary School, 900 Cottage Grove Ave., where they met and read, one on one, with children in kindergarten through third grade.
Each student was given a backpack filled with new books to read. Frog and Toad Together by Arnold Lobel was a popular choice, and so was a colorful biography of baseball great Sandy Koufax.
The backpacks and books were provided by TribeFest organizers and PJ Library, which provides free Jewish literature to families with young children. Marcie Greenfield Simons, director of PJ Library, said books for students were selected with an eye toward exploring "universal themes and values that would be transferable" to children at the school, even if the books include peripheral Jewish themes.
For example, she said, the Koufax biography "touches on the fact" that the Hall of Fame member is Jewish, but "you've also got a baseball book."
Las Vegan Marty Paz attended last year's TribeFest and said he was "happy to hear" that a community service component was included this year.
"Service is a very important part of the Jewish religion, and that was kind of missing last year," said Paz, 32. "So I'm happy they're bringing it back."
Dave Clark of Las Vegas spent the morning reading the Frog and Toad book with third-grader Yonatan Talavera, 8.
Clark, 31, signed up for the event because "it sounded like a fun activity. I work for a nonprofit in town -- Best Buddies -- so I'm always looking for ways to give back to the community."
Las Vegan Serena Goldstock, 35, was reading with third-grader Alan Hernandez, 9. Which of his new books did Alan plan to read first when he got home from school?
"All of them," he answered, not joking at all.
Gabrielle Conley, 8, and Jessi Norris, 26, of Oakland, Calif., spent as much time chatting as they did reading. Gabrielle called herself a "big reader."
"I have millions of books," she said. "I read almost every day. Actually, I do read every day."
"She's doing a great job reading to me," Norris said. "I haven't done anything. I'm just holding the book."
Then, as they chatted and read, Gabrielle asked Norris a surprising question.
"Will you be here every Monday?" she asked Norris hopefully.
"I don't think so," Norris replied. "I live in California, so we're just going to hang out today."
When their hour had passed and it was time for Norris to go, Gabrielle hugged her, tightly and for as long as she could, before getting in line to go back to her classroom.
Michelle Adams, principal of Paradise Elementary School, said the event helped to impress upon children the value of reading and gave them valuable one-on-one time with an adult role model.
"What is amazing is that we were able to impact over 200 students in such a short period of time in one day," she said. "I'll hear about it, from the children telling their stories."