Israel 5777: Keeping the Connection Alive

Adult learning at Spertus Institute, Chicago. Photo by Dan Rest.

By Marla Goldberg

[One of a series of articles about lifelong Jewish learning.]

Over the past year, I have participated in the Chicago Adult Jewish Learning Initiative, spearheaded by Spertus Institute for Jewish Learning and Leadership with support from the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago. In addition to the valuable sessions on a range of topics, from program evaluation to lay-professional relations, the initiative tackled the challenge of developing a community-wide collaborative program, intending to address the findings of a market analysis and needs assessment and to set the groundwork for multi-organization collaborations to expand capacity and realize economies of scale.

The first pilot collaborative program focused on Jewish Responses to Crisis. It allowed members of the professional network to discuss a number of opportunities and challenges of collaborative programming, including, how to:

  • make professional time, especially for projects that are not core to one’s portfolio and not generally seen as part of one’s own organizational priorities (in fact sometimes seen as competing, in terms of audience development, but also in terms of time allocation);
  • manage for the greater amount of lead and preparation time necessary for successful and integrated collaboration;
  • identify the strengths and needs of individual professionals and the needs of their organizations;
  • place the program into a broader context, and especially to assess its fit with potentially competing programs (on both topic and scheduling);
  • how to encourage the responsiveness of already overscheduled programming professionals.

Throughout the process, we learned more about what additional resources program participants were interested in having. These included: bibliographies, web links, videos of the presentations, related articles, and texts. Since the pilot program, materials have been loaded to a special web page that includes video recording of the lectures, an associated bibliography and links to online resources, as well as materials from a related program on the theme of resilience (course syllabus and video recording of two lectures by distinguished scholar Dr. Kenneth Pargament). We also received additional feedback topics of interest to participants and preferred times and locations for programs.

The second pilot community-wide collaboration occurred on Sunday afternoon, May 21, 2017. It included presentations by seven local storytellers, who took the stage in a sold-out public event. To kick off a year-long celebration of the 70th anniversary of the State of Israel, the event drew on lessons learned from the first pilot program and the results of needs assessment and market analysis, which revealed:

  • deep interest in Jewish history, Israel, and arts and culture;
  • the desire for passionate and knowledgeable presenters who can connect deeply with an audience;
  • the need for more interactive presentations and opportunities to help build a sense of community;
  • access to associated resources; and,
  • the importance of convenient scheduling and proximity to people’s homes, with special interest in suburban offerings.

In addition to the formal program, the storytellers – selected through an application process that included a detailed registration form, brief outline of their story, and a voice sample – received several group training sessions with a professional storyteller. Outside of the ballroom, where the storytellers would weave their crafted tales, we offered light appetizers and opportunities for informal conversation on program-related themes. Remembering the interest of participants in collateral material and associated resources, inside the ballroom we were greeted with nicely decorated tables, including lovely vintage-looking Israeli-themed postcards in the center – later used to invite attendees to share their own personal chronicles and anecdotes involving Israel. Everyone was given a decorative reusable grocery bag (so Israeli) and the lights were dimmed appropriately for the production. A video recording of the full program, along with other resources compiled by staff of Spertus Institute’s Asher Library were available after the event on the Spertus website.

The result was a powerful program that spoke to participants in uniquely personal ways and showcased the diversity of Israeli life and experiences as well as the complexity of perceptions of Israel and Israel-Diaspora relations. Listening to each storyteller offered the opportunity to observe the impact of Israel (its people and land) upon them. It was as if each person was being fitted for eyeglasses – which frames suited the shape of their face and head, along with which ones demonstrated their respective personalities. We had a window into each life and their respective memorable happenstances – where they were, as well as when and how the occurrence became imprinted upon them. It appeared to be a self-reflective and evolving process of making meaning over time.

Combined together, these stories offered both enchantment and realism. It seems as though what resonates for most continues to be the constant of relationships. This is how we must interface with our sisters and brothers halfway across the world. It is our direct involvement that occupies our beings. It is our cross-cultural exchange that is disarming and summons our participation. We are richer for having joined in the mifgash, encounter. How do our cultures differ and where do they intersect? Where and how can we meet on “higher ground?”

This conversation is a constant, at least in my world. In my Women of Reform Judaism volunteer work, I am charged with our Israel Education and Advocacy portfolio and this committee has adopted the mission: “Enhance our North American connection to Israel through increased understanding of and involvement in Israeli culture and life.” To date, we have partnered with our Israeli counterparts and explored books, movies, food and ritual observances together. We continually increase our learning, which in turn, leads to strengthening our collective bridges and keeps our love of Israel: its land and people, alive.

This collaborative project inspired me, and the other participants, to think outside of the proverbial box, making the holiday of Yom-HaAtzmaut truly meaningful in new ways. Witnessing others’ journeys only served to deepen my emotional connection to Eretz Yirael. The project reflects the needs identified and being addressed by the adult Jewish Learning initiative. All in all, it was a wonderful way to set the stage for Chicago’s upcoming commemoration of the 70th anniversary of the State of Israel…or to coin an obvious phrase, “Next year in Jerusalem….” Kein Y’hi Ratzon. May it be G-d’s will.

Marla Goldberg is a nonprofit administrator, educator, coach, and mentor. She is a graduate of Spertus Institute’s MA in Jewish Professional Studies program.