By Bill Motchan
Remember getting together with loved ones to celebrate special occasions?
COVID-19 has made those gatherings much more difficult. For Jewish families, Coronavirus has impacted everything from Shabbat dinners to Passover Seders, weddings, and other simchas. The alternative to meeting in person has become videoconferencing.
Virtual gatherings have filled a void, helping Jewish families stay connected and inspired. One especially innovative initiative uses streaming technology to spread positivity and hope in a time when it’s in short supply. The program, known as “Flagpole,” launched April 30, is a professionally-produced interactive national weekly broadcast shared with tens of thousands of Jewish families via Facebook Live.
Flagpole features community leaders, clergy, parents, and teens sharing anecdotes of gratitude and stories about local heroes and community resources, accompanied by live music from Rick Recht and other nationally touring Jewish musicians. It’s being offered each week in Atlanta, Chicago, Colorado, St. Louis, the Jewish Community Camps of North America, and the Camp Ramah movement. The songs and positive message of the program have a camp vibe, and the Flagpole name was inspired by the daily tradition at Jewish summer camps of gathering around the flagpole for ritual singing, announcements, and flag-raising or lowering.
The initiative was conceived by the Staenberg Family Foundation and Jewish Rock Radio. Philanthropist Michael Staenberg said Flagpole came together quickly amid the pandemic and was a worthwhile project for his family’s foundation.
“Our mission is consistent with tikkun olam and if there was ever a time when we needed to heal the world, this is it,” Staenberg said. “We can’t join together in person to celebrate Judaism right now, but there’s no reason we can’t do it while sheltering at home. Flagpole achieves this connection in such a beautiful way.”
The Staenberg Family Foundation places an emphasis on initiatives that produce results. Flagpole has already proven it’s connecting with audiences. The first webcast in St. Louis on April 30 was viewed over 20,000 times in the first five days.
Those virtual viewers don’t just watch and listen, they actively interact throughout every Flagpole broadcast with a virtual conversation. They not only float thumbs-up and heart emojis to express thanks, but they share ideas for activities at home, recognize the names of local Jewish heroes, volunteers, and educators, and send mazal tov’s for b’nai mitzot, birthdays and graduations.
The accompanying comments offer proof the program is tapping into an emotional need among the audience. A recent broadcast elicited comments like “I can’t tell you how much I needed THIS. Our community is incredible!” “Mrs. Jane – the impact you’ve made on our family as a teacher is immeasureable,” and “Our PJ Library books and music have become part of our daily routine and give us so many positive family experiences!”
Flagpole has quickly achieved a large viewing audience in part because it offers a feeling of hope and stresses that we will survive the coronavirus era by staying positive, according to Rabbi Mitchell Cohen, national director of the National Ramah Commission.
“Right now, communities are craving connection, consistency and a sense of hope and gratitude,” said Rabbi Cohen. “Kolot Ramah (Ramah Flagpole) gives our Camp Ramah communities the opportunity to share meaningful interaction via Facebook Live while enjoying uplifting music.”
Each week’s webcast is MC-ed by Rick Recht, executive director of Jewish Rock Radio. Recht is a national touring artist who has championed Jewish pop music. His 10-yeaer-old Jewish Rock Radio has also brought greater attention to veteran Jewish musicians and nurtured emerging talent. Recht said after the first few broadcasts, Flagpole has already exceeded his expectations.
“I’ve never experienced such an extreme level of interaction and engagement as I am with Facebook Live community gatherings,” said Rick Recht, founder and music director of the national Flagpole initiative. “Not only are people attending in unprecedented numbers, but the sentiments they share during the shows about community, gratitude, and hope are absolutely profound and heart-warming.”
The Flagpole concept could benefit tens of thousands of children who look forward to attending Jewish summer camps, since many of those facilities have already announced closures in 2020. It is already helping to sustain Jewish traditions according to Doron Krakow, president and CEO of JCC Association of North America.
“COVID-19 will make the summer camp season more complicated this year, but so much of the magic of Jewish summer camp is in the relationships between our kids, their staff, and camp’s amazing traditions. So, we’re finding ways to give life to those traditions in other ways,” Krakow said. “The Flagpole gatherings will bring our campers and their families together through the music and song via Facebook Live, with the remarkable Rick Recht. Together, they’ll celebrate the timeless rituals and traditions that are at the very heart of Jewish summer camp.”
The musical portion of the broadcasts are entertaining and uplifting, with nationally-known Jewish artists like Nefesh Mountain, Shira Kline, Ellen Allard, Hadar and Sheldon, Mikey Pauker, Happie Hoffman, Isaac Zones and Shimon Smith. Local artists are also featured, which lends a community feel to the program. The real key to the success of Flagpole is audience participation. It is intentionally interactive to generate conversation, Recht said.
“It’s an opportunity for people to talk, to shout out to teachers, first responders, medical professionals and caregivers, the people who are the real heroes and helping us get through this difficult time,” Recht said. “We’re also providing valuable information on community resources like food banks. This is a way giving people a sense of hope and allowing them to share and give thanks to others. That’s the real magic.”
Bill Motchan is a writer and photographer in St. Louis who frequently covers Judaism, music and musicians. He is a staff writer for the St. Louis Jewish Light and a 2019 winner of a Rockower Award for excellence in writing about seniors presented by the American Jewish Press Association.