How the New Z3 Experience Could Revolutionize the Jewish Peoplehood Conversation

By Rabbi Amitai Fraiman

In an iconic scene from the movie Man On The Moon, a biopic about comedian Andy Kaufman, the protagonist, played by Jim Carrey, insists on something unconventional when planning his comedy special: inserting a glitchy vertical hold in his TV show that would disrupt the broadcast temporarily. When asked why, Kaufman responds that it is a remarkable practical joke in which viewers will all get off the couch and smack the TV on its side, never knowing that the disruption was planted there in the first place. The producer responds, “Andy, we don’t want the viewer to get up. We want them to remain sitting.”

This scene is brilliant. It also perfectly illustrates the exact opposite effect we seek to achieve in this year’s Z3 virtual event. Not only do we want to engage with our audience, but we want them to be aware we’re doing it too! We want them to get off the couch and connect with our content. Imagine how much more powerful Kaufman’s moment would be if folks knew afterward what it was about – instead of it being an inside joke, it would become a seminal moment in which the fourth wall was not only broken but smashed.

In a piece published on this publication on April 26, I cautioned that we not be tempted to simply migrate our programs to the digital realm, but try and be thoughtful about how COVID-19 and the reality in which we live can propel us to the next stage in our Jewish communal life, local, national or global.

To that end, the Z3 Project at the Oshman Family JCC in Palo Alto proposes a plan for doing just that while engaging audiences with the importance of Jewish Peoplehood at the same time.

We are witnessing a massive growth of innovative content and programming. Synagogues have instituted socially distant and online prayer services. Schools are combining both in-person and virtual learning opportunities. Galas, concerts, and conferences are all streamed online.

As a JCC, we, too, are figuring out what it means to move our operations from personal interactions to online ones. Studying a variety of offerings, we continue to come up against the same questions. How do we maintain our communal feel while operating in the seemingly limitless realm? How do we make sure we create an experience which is not passive, but engaging and activating? Lastly, how do we capitalize on the strength of the platform and fit our content to the devices where it is being consumed?

In addition to these common questions facing most programs in the new reality, there are content-specific challenges to overcome.

Our first Zionism 3.0 conference five years ago was the first of its kind. In the years that followed, we have seen a growth in the interest in the Peoplehood conversation. Prior to COVID-19, we were on the cusp of rolling out a national plan with our first large conference outside of Palo Alto. Just in the past five months, we witnessed three separate conferences dedicated to the topic of Peoplehood! But even more fundamentally, now that we are all in virtual galut (exile, spiritual or otherwise), the ability, appetite, and motivation for open connection between various parts of the Jewish world are ubiquitous.

Anyone can participate in a virtual Shabbat in any other community in the world. There is still much work to be done, but, on a communal level, we are seeing the emergence of a sea change in how people are thinking about the relationship between the various parts of the Jewish world. The paradigmatic change we are seeking is underway, and we couldn’t be happier about it. The question then becomes, how do we continue to move the conversation forward?

In this year’s event, we are planning three tiers of content and engagement.

The first tier is akin to our traditional conference and will consist of topical panels and presentations. These presentations will address broader questions pertaining to the future of our people that go beyond a specific political moment.

The second tier will be executed together with JCCs across the globe, creating opportunities for communities to engage in meaningful conversations at the local level. The topics chosen will be connected to the larger Z3 conversation. For example, in Los Angeles, they might discuss how we rebuild our public square while in Haifa, they might discuss how to identify the most pressing needs facing the Jewish world. This piece will give each community the ability to shape the conversation based on its own context. This tier allows a level of personalization for our partners and gives voice for our members to discuss and engage in conversation.

Lastly, we plan to create the largest global Jewish Peoplehood Giving Circle to date. This is not a charity drive; it is an innovative step in facilitating a global peoplehood experiment in which Jews from around the world will crowdfund and crowdsource how the Jewish people should prioritize its needs. In experimenting with the democratization of financial allocation, we are transforming passive viewers into active change-makers, taking the theoretical lessons learned, and turning them into action. When people feel they have a stake and a say in the process, their long-term engagement can look a lot different.

This week-long event, over the course of Hanukkah, lets us tap into our original intent, which is the connection between Diaspora and Israeli Jewry as epitomized by the new five-sided dreidel created by Z3 to include both the Israeli and Diaspora acronyms: Ness Gadol Hayah Sham AND Po! Also, due to the giving nature of the holiday, we will be able to promote Jewish Peoplehood through shared giving.

We recognize that we don’t have all the answers, but we believe that the event we are planning for December strikes a balance between the global and the local, between academic expertise and grassroots learning and utilizes the strength of the virtual world in a way that will activate our viewers and give them agency to participate in the decision-making processes that shape our lives as a people. We live in a historical moment that requires us to take bold steps to reimagine how the Jewish world congregates and engages its constituents. In this version of Z3, we create a platform for collective action with implications in the real world, breathing new life into what it means to architect the Jewish future.

Rabbi Amitai Fraiman, Director of the Z3 Project: Reimagining Diaspora Israel Relations.