A Summer of Israel Engagement and Jewish Connection 6000 Miles Away

By Rabbi Dr. Effie Kleinberg 

At the end of April of this year, as the days of summer were coming into view, I had the unfortunate task of being the bearer of bad news to our Onward Israel-Forum for Jewish Leadership program participants that the experience they had been eagerly anticipating, had been cancelled. The borders of Israel were closed to all foreign passport holders and nearly all international travel had come to a screeching halt. While it was certainly people’s health and safety that took a front seat at that time, building the Jewish future also could not be put on hold; a solution had to be engineered.

 While virtually all Israel-based programs made the painful decision or were forced to cancel their plans and refund program fees, a handful of organizations in partnership with Onward Israel put their heads together and developed alternative models. A remote summer program was born, motivated by a desire to connect future Jewish leaders with their heritage, their homeland, and their people. The summer was on, albeit in an unusual format, but the opportunity to provide a supportive community of connection and learning on top of an internship with an Israeli company, offered everyone who participated a sense of stability, meaning, and purpose during a period of uncertainty. 

Remote learning experiences cannot compete with the “real thing” of being on the ground in Israel, hiking through the Galilee, interning at a hitech company in Tel Aviv, and ordering a falafel at a food stand in Jerusalem. The challenge was “on” to develop innovative methods that would enable participants to experience the sites of Israel, interact with great Jewish leaders, and engage in a deep dive into the Jewish narrative. Here are some of the ways in which we connected program participants during the summer:

Virtual Tours: During the remote group sessions, participants viewed pre-recorded clips depicting scenes taking the viewers on journeys through ancient and modern sites in Israel. In one clip, participants enjoyed a tour of Jerusalem’s Mamilla Mall, the Jewish Quarter, the Kotel, and the Mahane Yehuda Shuk with brief explanations and a background of upbeat Israeli music. Another series took the participants through the ruins and history of the port city of Caesarea. The goal of these virtual tours was twofold: First, to “bring” Israel onto the screens of the participants in a summer where they could not physically be there, and second, to connect the participants to their shared history and personalities who shaped the Jewish future to this day. 

Here is what one participant said about the virtual tours:

I thought the few video tours were really helpful in making me feel as if I was there. It also made me a little sad as I wish I could see it first hand, but I think that actually made me even more connected. ~ Ben S. 

Guest Speakers: In addition to the virtual tours, the participants interfaced with Jewish leaders from diverse backgrounds and industries. The list of speakers included a senior US diplomat, founders of startup companies, business entrepreneurs, a sports executive, and non-profit leaders. The sessions featured workshops, hands-on professional development, panels, and breakout rooms. By the end, participants were introduced to incredible people, innovative Israeli companies, and leading organizations leaving the group with the messages of taking responsibility, leading with an entrepreneurial spirit, and seeking to make the world a more peaceful, tolerant, and safe place.

Here is what Eitan D. expressed in reflecting upon the leaders he met: Through grade school I was taught Jewish values and through my experiences I learned how to lead, but it wasn’t until college and especially until FJL that I learned how to put the two together. Hearing from Jewish leaders of all industries helped me understand the real world implication of being Jewish in the workplace. It helped me understand how to best manifest my Judaism within my leadership – leading with respect, compassion, empathy, and striving for excellence.

Jewish Community: Perhaps the greatest challenge of the remote program was in creating a space for the participants to discover friendship and camaraderie in a time of social distancing and isolation. With bi-weekly meetings throughout the summer, each session featured group activities, team competitions, discussion and reflection on the world inside and outside of the remote sessions, and a safe space for each member of the community to have a voice and opportunity to connect with other Jews. After the program, Sofie W. said: It was so nice to stay in touch with a Jewish community and be able to talk to successful jewish leaders. I definitely now have more great jewish role models to aspire to learn from.

The biggest kudos goes to the incredible future Jewish leaders who took a chance to participate in a summer experience filled with unknowns; hats off to them, the future of the Jewish people was just made stronger. In sum, the key ingredients for the summer of 2020 were three r’s: resilience, resolve, and responsibility. The resilience of an organization to not fold up and hibernate until the storm passes, but rather have the resolve to build a program that would attempt to incorporate many of the elements that are experienced in person and take forward the responsibility to continue providing high-level Jewish leadership experiences.

Rabbi Dr. Effie Kleinberg serves as Educational Director at Forum for Jewish Leadership, an organization focused on developing the next generation of strong future Jewish leaders around the globe. Rabbi Kleinberg holds a doctorate in educational technology from Yeshiva University and worked as an educator in North America for close to 10 years. He currently resides with his family in Ra’anana, Israel.