Nearly three years later, these Jewish programs created for the pandemic are still running

But Jewish organizations have found that some audiences still prefer meeting online, while certain needs borne of the pandemic have stuck around longer than expected.

In May 2020, as internships, Jewish summer camps and trips to Israel were abruptly canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic, thousands of Jewish college students stared down a summer with nothing to do.

Scrambling to keep these young adults engaged, the Jewish Federations of North America (JFNA) threw together the Jewish Changemakers fellowship. For several hours a day over the course of three weeks, participants learned over Zoom about global Jewish communities, how to advocate for causes important to them, and how to develop professional skills such as conflict management – receiving a $500 stipend and filling some of the dead space of summer.

One of several programs created out of the chaos of spring 2020 to address the sudden needs of a socially distanced Jewish world, Changemakers seemed like it might have an expiration date, with much of Jewish life — and the world more broadly — leaving Zoom behind and returning to in-person experiences. But Jewish organizations have found that some audiences still prefer meeting online, while certain needs borne of the pandemic have stuck around longer than expected. 

As a result, instead of phasing out, these emergency programs have taken root for the long term. Nearly three years after COVID-19 rapidly transformed daily life in the United States, digital offerings are part of the new Jewish normal.

“We needed to make tweaks and we needed to make shifts, but because this was a program that was generated when it was generated, it is actually the right intervention to meet the needs of this generation,” Julia Malkin Reger, the managing director for Changemakers, told eJewishPhilanthropy. The program, which has an annual budget of $1.5 million, has engaged over 2,000 people since 2020, and plans to engage another 1,000 over the course of this year.

The big difference compared to 2020, Malkin Reger said, is that the program’s organizers are now “able to take a breath and assess our audience and what their needs are.”

For Jewish organizations, retooling these programs means accepting that online connections are no longer a begrudging necessity of 2020, but a value-add in their own right. That’s as true for institutions that suddenly jumped to virtual as it is for initiatives that were already operating online before the pandemic.

“We have a sense that on some level, the flow of every year for us will include large-scale gatherings of people in synchronous time online,” said Lex Rofeberg, a rabbi who serves as senior Jewish educator at Judaism Unbound, a podcast and online educational community. “We did not have that sense before. That is now a feature, not a bug.”

A core part of operating

The transition to virtual interactions has also persisted among organizations that long predated COVID-19. Before the pandemic, Jewish Child and Family Services of Chicago didn’t provide a telehealth option for any of its services, such as support groups and therapy. The technology “had been around,” said Pam Austin, senior director of marketing and communications for JCFS, “but we were providing services in person and that was working.”

Taking those services online in 2020 was a knee-jerk response to the pandemic. But once dragged into online programming, some Jewish organizations have discovered its lasting value. Austin points to telehealth’s ease of access, particularly for younger people.

“Say there’s a teenager who was getting therapy, and he used to have to leave school early, go to his therapist’s office, then go home and do his homework,” she said. Without needing to commute, the teen now has more time for school and still gets the therapy they need online.

Meanwhile, Commonpoint Queens, a New York City Jewish Community Center, is having success in virtual programming for older adults. Younger audiences, including families, have mostly gone back to in-person, the center has found, but many older adults are still social distancing for safety.

Fifteen of 17 exercise classes for older adults are now hybrid, with the remaining two meeting entirely in person. Cultural arts programming, like book talks and history seminars, which often found an audience among older people, have also stayed online. The change means letting go of both the conveniences and limits of a physical building.

For older Jews visiting a Commonpoint Queens facility before the pandemic, “it was easy for them to go from their crocheting class to go sit in an auditorium and listen to [an] author or participate in the art class,” said Jared Mintz, vice president of communications for Commonpoint Queens. 

But being in-person meant being limited to inviting authors who were visiting or living in New York City. Now virtual, it’s easier for those programs to host speakers from across the country and the world. Working online has also meant more collaboration, with Commonpoint Queens organizing programming together with the Marcus Jewish Community Center of Atlanta and The Smithsonian Institution.

For Commonpoint Queens and JCFS, programming online has become routine. Commonpoint Queens has even organized rallies against hate that included both a Zoom demonstration and an in-person meet-up.

“It’s funny to have this conversation and have a moment to reflect on these things because we don’t think about it, it’s just like, on to the next thing and on to the next way that we can help people,” Mintz said. “But we really have created better connectivity, I think, than we had pre-pandemic.”

Even for Jewish programs that were already online when the pandemic hit, there’s more strategy and sophistication around digital programming. In the early days of lockdowns and social distancing, Judaism Unbound quickly organized a platform called JewishLive for Jewish organizations to stream their programming in one place. 

While the project, dubbed a “virtual JCC,” had some success, there was something unappealing about the approach. Programming “took place in Zoom and people — for most of the classes, they could come,” said Rofeberg. “But we were [also] streaming [offerings] to Facebook, where a viewer was… watching, they weren’t participating in the same way they would be participating in a class.”

Over time, JewishLive became less of a necessity as organizations learned how to stream and manage their online content themselves. For Judaism Unbound, it made sense to phase out the platform, learn the lessons from having run it, and launch something new in the fall of 2021: The UnYeshiva, an online learning space.

This time, instead of simply streaming content, the UnYeshiva is built around Zoom courses meant to engage participants, offered on a more consistent 12-week schedule alongside three-week mini-courses. The platform is fully for Judaism Unbound content, not a streaming service for all Jewish organizations. And UnYeshiva classes cost money – ranging from $72 to $126 for the three-week courses and $299 to $499 for 12 weeks. The UnYeshiva has an annual budget of $160,000, covering roughly 30 classes in 2022-23, and will soon be offering a certificate program for people who take several classes.

More than 500 people have taken UnYeshiva classes since the initiative launched. “We have people who have taken multiple of our courses, we have people who have had digital relationships with others in the classes they took, who are continuing to build off of what they learned towards launching their own initiatives,” Rofeberg said.

The increased thought put into digital programming after 2020 is also reflected in ShavuotLive, Judaism Unbound’s 24-hour learning experience to celebrate the Jewish late spring festival. Before the pandemic, Judaism Unbound hosted Shavuot educational material on its website, but those offerings mostly consisted of resources for individuals. It was only after 2020 that the organization saw the potential Shavuot held as an occasion for an interactive Zoom experience, creating a deeper sense of community for participants.

“We, as an organization, already knew that Jewish learning online was possible,” Rofeberg said. “But the degree to which it’s possible, the degree to which you can become very close with people who you’ve never interacted with at a shared longitude and latitude, but only have interacted with through social media, through Zoom — that’s exciting.”

Participants in Changemakers, a leadership program for Jewish young adults, speak during the Jewish Federations of North America 2020 General Assembly, which was held virtually. (Screenshot)

From ad hoc to professionalized

Meanwhile, some makeshift pandemic initiatives have continued to evolve past the era of social distancing. 

The Israel Educational Travel Alliance (IETA) was one of the many 2020-era Jewish programs hastily put together over Whatsapp and centered on Zoom meetings. Now a coalition of roughly 90 Jewish and non-Jewish Israel trip providers, including Honeymoon Israel and Birthright, the alliance was conceived as a way to better navigate rapidly changing border policies worldwide, and brainstorm ways to deal with a sudden loss in funding and the ability to travel. 

But even as international tourism has resumed, the travel and hospitality industry has continued to struggle and the need for the alliance has outgrown its emergency origins. JFNA brought the alliance under its wing and hired Tal Gozani, the former chief program officer at the Israeli-American Council, as executive director in early 2022. 

“As we were coming [to] the other side of COVID, there was a real need to continue to help the field recover from the havoc that COVID wrought,” Gozani said. “But also there was this recognition that there’s so much potential in really having a more formalized, professional community for the space.”

Part of the shift to professionalization for programs like the IETA means committing to long-term planning. Gozani has spent the past year spearheading a survey of the Israel travel industry and how it affects the economy, which is planned for release in early February. Also in February will come the alliance’s first leadership summit with both funders and heads of travel agencies.

The survey and summit are part of a renewed push to get the Israeli government to help the travel industry. Trip costs per participant have increased by 30-50% from before the pandemic, Gozani said, and there is a shortage of hospitality workers and tour guides. Birthright, which runs free 10-day trips to Israel for young Jewish adults, said rising costs were part of the reason it is cutting back on trips in 2023.

“A huge chunk of [tour guides] left the field at the beginning of COVID because there was no work,” Gozani said. “So either you have ones that are just newer and not as experienced, or you just don’t have enough. In both cases, it’s directly impacting the experience.”

Part of addressing that issue means advocating for the Israeli government to introduce incentives for tour guides to enter and stay in the field, Gozani said. The long-term goal stands in contrast to the alliance’s priorities earlier in the pandemic, such as pushing for Israel’s then-strict border policies to allow in more organized trips.

The alliance “was very much ad hoc at the beginning, and just trying to get through day by day,” Gozani said. “Now, we have the opportunity to be more strategic.”

For Changemakers, Malkin Reger was hired in late 2021 as the managing director to take the fellowship “from a pandemic response program into an endemic program,” she said. Part of that is focusing on data by researching Gen Z’s needs and deciding whether to stay online or transition to in-person programming. 

When the fellowship started, it included a mix of younger millennials and older Gen Z participants. Now, participants are entirely Gen Z. Malkin Reger’s research showed that young adults today value national networking that can give them a foothold in their career path, in part because they expect to move between cities and regions for work. As a result, today’s young adults want online programs that can more easily connect them to others. 

But the program still needed to be streamlined for a world that had moved on from socially distanced summers. Rather than a three-week summer program with several hours of programming a day, starting in February the fellowship will operate on a nine-week model, with an expected three hours of engagement per week. Sessions will be run year-round, and demand less commitment on a weekly basis, so they can better fit into college and work schedules. 

And rather than trying to connect Jews worldwide, as Changemakers did in the summers of 2020, 2021, and 2022, the fellowship will focus on North American young adults in order to have as much impact as possible. An iteration of the program this past fall was limited to participants from the United States and Canada.

“We realized that if we’re really trying to build a leadership pipeline, Jewish Federations of North America obviously have an amazing global reach. But North America is in our name,” Malkin Reger said. “So if we really want to be able to shepherd people through their leadership career, it has to be where we actually have those immediate relationships and touch points.”

Malkin Reger also found that alumni of the fellowship whom she met at JFNA’s 2022 General Assembly confirmed her research. She recalls them appreciating the opportunity to connect with their peers nationwide, then saying, “You cannot stop doing this virtually.” 

Will it last?

Even as online programming becomes part of the new normal, Jewish organizations can’t predict whether digital offerings will keep sticking around. The ease of access is significant, they say, but there are challenges. A partner in the Jewish Community Response and Impact Fund, a coalition of leading Jewish funders established at the beginning of the pandemic that allocated tens of millions of dollars, told eJP in a statement that the fund is considering what its future will look like.

“JCRIF was established as an emergency response to the pandemic,” Mark Charendoff, president of the Maimonides Fund, one of the partners in JCRIF, said in the statement. “Now that the emergency is over, the funders are considering whether to continue some joint efforts which might include funding, convening, or reflecting on lessons learned. Those discussions are ongoing.”

Mintz, of Commonpoint Queens, said despite the success of online culture and arts programs, engagement has gone down compared to pre-pandemic times.

“But that just drives us to be more innovative and figure out more ways to be more engaging, and to really understand consumer appetite,” he said. The organization isn’t “thinking about phasing [online programming] out — we’re thinking about ways to do this smarter.”

Much of a program’s success, however, still depends on the audiences being served. For example, while Gen Z wants Changemakers to be online now, preferences could change as they get more used to in-person offerings, Malkin Reger said. 

“I think that they really want it, but it still feels very foreign in a lot of ways,” she said. “And it can feel a little risky, both emotionally and physically. So we’re gonna grow and shift with them, as they continue to grow and shift as a demographic.”

Meanwhile, Rofeberg sees the widespread adoption of online programming as an era-defining shift in Jewish life, one that, while accelerated in 2020, has been growing for decades. More changes might come, he said, but digital Jewish programming is here to stay.

“I believe it is very likely, or at least possible, that the entirety of our era of Judaism will boil down to, ‘Oh, that was the time period when a lot of stuff became digital,’” he said. “That will be the main headline 1,000 years from now.”