Following our North Stars to Guide our Pivot

By Shira M. Zemel

At the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, the L’Taken Social Justice Seminars bring 2,000 high school students and their adult leaders to Washington, DC each winter as part of congregational and Jewish communal group delegations.

We were lucky to run a complete and successful in-person 2020 L’Taken Social Justice Seminar season before the pandemic hit. Normally we begin meeting to plan the following season just weeks after we wrap. I remember our first L’Taken staff meeting once it began to really dawn on me that we would be in this pandemic for the long haul: in a vast sea of uncertainties and overwhelming anxiety, what should even be on this meeting’s agenda? I wanted to start with the things of which I could be certain – our North Stars.

We generated an exhaustive list of our “truths”: what are the things we know to be true about the L’Taken seminar that make it excellent?

Sure, I wanted to live in that space a little bit because everything else felt so grim, but I also wanted to make sure these things would continue to function as our North Stars, informing every decision we were going to make moving forward. Which aspects could remain even as we might be forced to go virtual?

Fast forward: the Social Justice Academy, our new virtual program, began three weeks ago to immediate success. 764 high school students and 116 congregational professionals representing 73 congregations and camps participated in our first two-week civic engagement module (connected to the RAC’s Every Voice, Every Vote Civic Engagement campaign). By the end of our third unit, we anticipate surpassing our annual L’Taken participation numbers.

Here are some of our North Stars that have allowed us to leverage our pre-pandemic success and preserve the core philosophy of our work as we’ve been forced to go virtual:

  1. Meet a need

We knew from our earliest planning stages that our online program would be guided by the same edict that guides our programming process any other year – meeting a need. L’Taken’s continued success is due in no small part to listening to and working in concert with our partner congregations. If we are the experts on our program and Jewish social justice advocacy, then the congregational professionals who bring their students to L’Taken are the experts on our conference participants. We learn a great deal by collaborating closely with these synagogue professionals and learning what we can offer their students: How can this experience elevate the students’ ongoing post-B’nai Mitzvah engagement with Judaism? How can this experience elevate the work to grow a deeply felt community among these students, the professionals, and their congregations/community? We ask these questions and then put the answers at the center of our planning process. We applied the same process to the Social Justice Academy. This summer, reaching out I learned a lot – much of which flew in the face of our initial assumptions. Many times I heard: “In terms of alternatives to L’Taken, it would really help me if the RAC could X,” and once I identified some patterns in what I was hearing, we began to build.

  1. Keep doing what works (if it works online)

Faced with the task of shifting our program online, we felt two immediate impulses: run the same program on a similar time frame, just doing the whole thing online, or take our existing programming and offer a la carte pieces as a series of semi-monthly one-off experiences. We realized very quickly that acting on either of these impulses would be allowing fear to guide our decision-making. Instead, there was a third path: use our deep knowledge of the L’Taken experience to identify the elements that make it successful in person, and translate certain crucial elements into a new model designed specifically for online participation.

For example, a crucial element of L’Taken is that it follows an arc to a culminating peak experience with a lobby day on Capitol Hill. Similarly, we identified that our virtual program should create programmatic arcs that build towards peak moments for participants to act in the world.

Another example: L’Taken is successful because we run five conferences in ten weeks. This creates many opportunities to tweak as we go, constantly refining the program. We similarly built the Social Justice Academy with opportunities to constantly refine. Offering the same program at multiple times allows this iterative process to flourish AND it gets back to meeting the need – providing a variety of scheduling options that will work for communities/teens spread across North America.

  1. Trust and collaboration creates more trust and collaboration

Running successful programs at the RAC means empowering our very talented young staff to lead – these are the folks who bring the programs to life. I think about it like this: a trusting collaboration is the basis of my working relationship with Rabbi Michael Namath, with whom I lead the conference. Because this is the foundation of our work, we are able to invite the RAC’s new staff into this culture as it already exists. In turn, as we involve more of our stakeholders and strategic partners in planning and executing other pieces of the work, they are invited into the network of trust and collaboration which begins with Michael and myself (our institutional memory places us at the center), encompasses the rest of our staff team, and then extends outward to these external partners. Undoubtedly, it’s this trust and collaboration that is serving us so well in this unprecedented moment. I never take for granted that our talented staff is our most valuable resource; they truly deserve the credit for our success.

  1. Embrace our limitations and turn them into strengths

Faced with new staffing constraints for this program season, it was apparent that trying to translate all our programming online would stretch us far too thin. Rather, with a smaller team, we chose to prioritize quality control: focus the team’s talents and efforts on a smaller suite of programming, allowing us to give that programming a high degree of attention and care and optimize each opportunity to deliver.

The Social Justice Academy (about to begin the second unit/module next week, focused on racial, equity, diversity & inclusion) has defied my expectations of what we’d be able to create in this time of physical distancing. In this moment where we are forced to innovate, I think it’s important that we didn’t give into impulses to translate our work 1:1 from in-person to virtual, but neither did we throw the baby out with the proverbial bathwater and start totally anew.

There is so much each of us can learn from our own North Stars that have always guided our work. I challenge us to identify and use them – lean into them and bask in their glory to plan for the knowns amidst a sea of unknowns.

Shira M. Zemel is the Director of Youth Leadership Development at the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism and a longtime member of Temple Micah in Washington, D.C.