By Abby Pitkowsky and Dan Tatar, representing the collaboration of The Center for Israel Education, The iCenter, the Jewish Agency for Israel, The Jewish Education Project and Unpacked Media
Conclusions are most meaningful when partnered with reflections. We’ve now come to the conclusion of a significantly meaningful period in the Jewish calendar, Pesach through Shavuot. Those 60 or so days seem to contain a meaningful day at every twist and turn of the week, some related to our relationship with Israel. Reflecting on the shifts in approaches and techniques that were necessitated this year to celebrate and observe these days, to ensure meaning, and to strengthen connections with our local and global Jewish community is especially important this year, at this time. While acknowledging the wide and deep losses from not having “normal programming,” our reflection also uncovers significant gains that are worthy to unpack, hold up to share and hold on to as we move ahead, either returning to our familiar normal, or learning a new one.
This year, no one knew what these days would look or feel like. In-person celebrations for special days like Yom HaAtzma’ut were sadly not an option, and no one had a play-book on large scale commemoration and celebrations in a virtual manner during a pandemic; (and even if a play-book was available it wouldn’t have helped; the State of Israel wasn’t around during the last pandemic in 1918 so the challenge and joy of celebrating Yom HaAtzma’ut didn’t exist!). Instead of radio silence or separate small scale virtual gatherings on this day – mirroring what at times occurs under normal circumstances – we saw something deserving of an “Al HaNissim” – miraculous – a collective spirit among five organizations focused almost exclusively on delivering meaningful, engaging and fun content to people all over the world. The Center for Israel Education, The iCenter, the Jewish Agency for Israel, The Jewish Education Project and Unpacked worked together to develop #ConnectWithIsrael, a full day festival-like celebration on the Sunday following Yom HaAtzma’ut, viewed by thousands. As we reflect on this collaboration, and other collaborations between Pesach and Shavuot, we’re moving forward and doing more planning with key learnings:
· Israel is often held up as an “issue” in the American Jewish community as an example of one that causes divisions. We know from work with schools around the country that Israel actually is one of the great unifiers in school communities – an opportunity for people of different ages and with different interests to be together in one space. We saw this element of unity play out this year in these remote events – both from the planners and the participants – that were simultaneously designed to mark Israel’s Independence in ways that offered something for everyone.
· There were no issues about who was “in” or “out” of the planning and delivering program. People of different practices and with different political beliefs came together communally, virtually, to mark the sad days on the calendar and to celebrate the joyous ones. Having events virtually obviously means that geographic distance almost becomes irrelevant. This may seem like a minor “value-add,” but we learned the vast benefits this has. Someone from a small Jewish community in Kansas may “come” to an event with an entirely different lived experience than a New Yorker or Angeleno.
· Organizations are able to move along what we’ll call “the C spectrum” – from Cordial Coordination – politely in our different corners and keeping a divide, to Complete Collaboration; linking arms for a fully shared endeavor. This difference is akin to someone asking how your day is going and moving along politely, versus someone really getting to know you and wanting to be in relationship with you. The community benefits when we, as a field, are in Complete Collaboration. Here’s how:
o Efficient planning. While we all know that collaboration can be tricky, a clear, urgent need to create a program – with a concrete deadline – created an environment in which these five organizations worked speedily to develop and deliver a program for audiences desperate for it.
o Meaningful content. With five organizations working together, the content created was more robust in what it covered, and more substantive in each of those areas. Simply, the content was better.
o Enriched toolkit. Working in uncharted waters as a collaborative entity bolstered our readiness and confidence to experiment with new techniques and approaches – and more collaborations – moving forward. The end-user will benefit from this the next time.
Post-Shavuot, with no major holidays for a while, we should remember the power of a few major events, with real substance, as opposed to smaller disparate events with planners fighting for the same audience. We should also remember and model the sense of purpose and unity we felt, and that we helped to create, through #ConnectWithIsrael. We should remember that what mattered was the content and wide array of programming that brought meaning to people and strengthened their connections with Israel, to their own Jewish identity and local Jewish communities. We were, and are, stronger and more effective together.
Abby Pitkowsky is Director of the Westchester Region and Israel Education at The Jewish Education Project. Dan Tatar is Director of Outreach at The iCenter for Israel Education. Email them at [email protected] or [email protected] to let them know what new collaborations you are interested in trying.