Contact Before Content

By Micol Zimmerman Burkeman, MAJE

This is a scary time. A time filled with uncertainty, insecurity and real and sometimes paralyzing fear. Yet it has been comforting and awe-inspiring to see the way in which our Jewish community has mobilized to action in this time of crisis. For the educators, clergy and Jewish communal professionals among us, we’ve always known how hard, albeit not always visibly, we work behind the scenes to make sure our community is always taken care of. However, the speed and force at which this is happening right now is on a completely different level, and one I have not seen in my years in the field and in the Jewish community as a whole. 

Amidst this movement to action has been a frenzy about the “c” word: content. Questions have been flooding facebook groups and newsfeeds regarding the most effective ways to deliver Hebrew learning, the best content for zoom, how they’re making their curricula appropriate for distance learning. Stress and anxiety is soaring as our educators, clergy and communal professionals scramble to continue offering high-quality learning across digital platforms. The effort has been epic and I am more in awe of our Jewish professional community than ever before. Yet while we lose sleep over content, I can’t help but wonder if this is how we should really be spending our time and, more importantly,  if this is what our communities really need? 

By now, many of us have seen the viral video of an Israeli mother lamenting about the distance learning implemented by her children’s schools, and the extra burden this has put on the parents and the kids themselves. The video, while comedic, wholly captures the breaking points at which many families are already finding themselves; and we’re in week one. Is it content that our communities need from us right now? Or is it refuge, sanctuary and community attending to their social, emotional and spiritual needs? The answer could be both. And at a certain point, depending on how long this goes, we will have to address content. But right now, more than ever, I believe we should simply be offering ourselves, our support and the warm, embracing arms of community. 

Our families are being inundated with content right now. From their schools. Their workplaces. Their social media feeds. They need a place to breathe. A place to share. A place to cry. And a place to be seen. We, as their Jewish communities, are in a unique position to focus solely on those needs. What does that look like? What could it look like if we place questions about Hebrew, Jewish texts and holidays off to the side, at least for the time being, and focus on emotional and communal support, check-ins, and spaces for connection? What if we asked our students to teach us a skill or share the books or shows that they love? What if we cooked, played music or watched movies together? 

We are all feeling varying degrees of loss right now. Loss of normalcy. Loss of control. Loss of physical connection. Loss of expectations. Families are losing b’nai mitzvah that they’ve been planning for years. Teens and young adults may be losing proms, graduations, their last months with friends. They need a space to mourn, to commiserate, to find comfort and to connect. Maybe content will find its way in there at some point. But in the meantime, let them learn how a community supports each other in times of need. Let them learn what it means to hold space for another. Let them learn a few other “c” words, like connection, compassion, community and contact. I don’t know if content should be step two or step ten, but I know with certainty it shouldn’t be step one. Step one should be contact. 

Micol Zimmerman Burkeman, MAJE, has worked to elevate and reimagine Jewish education and teen engagement for the last 15 years. As a consultant, coach and designer and facilitator of professional development, she also works with educators, clergy and Jewish communal professionals to help them increase their impact and maximize their potential. She currently serves as Recruitment and Leadership Development Associate at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion.