By Cydney Topaz and Alex Jakubowski
On March 18th, just days into widespread lockdowns, KAHAL’s Director of Abroad Experiences, Joey Leskin, penned in eJewishPhilanthropy: “we too had a choice: suspend programming, accepting that our student-base has gone home overnight; or rip up months of planning and process … to create not only an entirely new program, but also develop a new purpose.”
KAHAL pivoted perhaps as aggressively as any organization at the pandemic’s onset. We recognized that, amid unprecedented pandemic-driven turmoil, our job descriptions had changed to one word: help. This attitude led us, circuitously, to dive into the world of personal protective equipment, COVID-19 testing, and pandemic relief. And while we’re proud of the impact we’ve had on our community’s most vulnerable, we also recognize that this is not KAHAL’s true purpose.
COVID-19 has brought the travel industry to its knees. Between rising infection rates and decreased demand, government restrictions and ever-changing laws, KAHAL was, at the time, forced to pivot. Like many organizations, our pivot gave us purpose, which fueled our team, our stakeholders, and our community to deliver impact and finance our continued existence. If we hadn’t pivoted, it’s unlikely KAHAL would still be here today.
Nearly eight months into the pandemic, however, our job is no longer to pivot, but to learn. Taking our cues from the world of international education, there comes a time when constant pivots and shifting sands no longer form a strong enough base on which to grow. Many international education providers, unable to make plans and pay deposits amidst persistent uncertainty, have already cancelled not only spring 2021 programs, but also fall 2021 and in some cases, winter 2022.
But these programs haven’t closed shop – instead, they’re building new programs, establishing new partnerships, and designing the future of international exchange. They are investigating new trends in regional travel, investing in virtual exchanges and virtual pipeline experiences, and discovering their role within the future world of remote work. They are exploring new demographics and life-stages, learning as the travel industry picks up new life and promise from unexpected sources. The future, however hard to see, will come, and it will be more global and interconnected than ever—the true question is whether we’ll be ready.
Today, KAHAL is announcing the start of its research and strategic planning process. In partnership with the social impact firm Third Plateau, we aim to conduct a 5 month research process. Together, we will look to investigate and share insights with the field related to:
- The changing world of travel and exchange in the wake of COVID-19
- The future of purpose-driven travel and young adult mobility
- The role of exchange and mifgash (encounters) within the Jewish community, including generational, denominational, and other exchanges
We aim to build upon this trove of applicable desk research, extensive customer discovery, and operational data to build KAHAL’s new strategic plan, with 2027, not 2021, as our true goal.
As we look to the future, we all must make difficult decisions about the structure and strategy of our organizations. If we are honest and sincere about our commitment to learning, we must also be willing to let these learnings drive change – even, and perhaps especially, when it is difficult.
With careful consideration, after seven years as KAHAL’s Founder and Executive Director, Alex Jakubowski will transition to a lay role on the Board of Directors. This will allow a new Executive Director/CEO to steward a strategic planning process and herald in KAHAL’s next phase of growth and impact. Through its partnership with Third Plateau, KAHAL aims to provide the new Executive Director/CEO the opportunity to leverage an extensive research process in driving forward the organization’s new holistic strategy and expanded scope.
KAHAL’s deep commitment to our learning process drove our Board to have challenging conversations about our future. As we gathered information and started to build out our process, the intellectual seriousness of our endeavor led us to a series of frank, honest conversations. We came to believe that in order to build on our success and evolve to create an even more impactful, interconnected future, we needed a strong Executive Director/CEO ready and willing to take the charge. This meant having a real conversation as a leadership team about our own commitments and ability to execute on our goals. In the end, we realized that our vision and promise will demand new executive leadership to steward and truly own this vision.
From Alex, “While I know that this is no longer the role for me, I can’t wait to see how the organization continues to evolve and grow. I am so proud of what we have built, but this decision affirms what I have always known: KAHAL is so much more than the sum of its parts, and certainly much more than any single individual. We are a family—many communities in many places, but always together as one KAHAL.”
True commitment to intellectual curiosity demands intellectual honesty above all else. While we recognize the myriad of challenges we face, we also recognize that we are far from alone on this journey. Every organization, whether it wants to or not, will look different after pandemic life fades. What we choose to learn from this moment will determine our response for generations to come; how we choose to learn happens now.
Cydney Topaz is the Board Chair of KAHAL: Your Jewish Home Abroad. Alex Jakubowski is the Executive Director of KAHAL and the former Director of the Jewish Impact Genome. Cydney can be reached at [email protected] Alex can be reached at [email protected].