Reinforced by Its Own Medium: The Virtual as the New Category of Human Experience

By Jake Marmer

On the final day of the Bronfman Fellowship’s 2020 virtual summer program, one of the Fellows led a guided meditation session. After the opening statements, she invited us to close our eyes, to mute ourselves and turn off the cameras. And then she went silent.

I must admit that only a few seconds into what should have been a gorgeous, memorable moment – being the Education and Programming Director – instead, I panicked. Am I still on? Is everybody? Are people actually doing this? How do I know for sure? Slowly and gradually, I allowed myself to relax, or attempted to, and before long, we were all soothingly summoned back on screen, looking at each other once more. What occurred to me right then is that this exercise, and indeed the whole endeavor of virtual education requires something that very much resembles faith – a belief in a certainty of our connection, despite this connection’s frailness.

The pandemic laid bare a great deal about our contemporary pedagogies and opened subsequent questions with a new urgency. What binds individuals in a learning community together? What can we do to nourish and maintain that bond, in this new reality? Our wonky wi-fi and crashing software are only symptoms of the fact that profound connections in the educational setting are precious and rare, often don’t last, and to remain alive, require time, intention, and lots of good faith in each other. Addressing this concern became important to my experience of this past summer, and, in a way, re-centered my pedagogy in the long-term manner.

In full transparency, I was extremely reluctant about the attempt to transpose a five-week immersive intellectual and experiential learning program, set to take place in Jerusalem, into the virtual. An extremely helpful early reconceptualization, however, came from Casper ter Kuile, who suggested: “When adapting… from in-person to online, it can be tempting to dwell on what’s lost. We fully recognize the loss – online events are not the same as in-person gatherings. However, for design purposes, we suggest a reframe: …this isn’t a less-good version of the ‘real world’ – it’s a new category of experience, and one that is only just being developed. You have an opportunity to create the traditions of the future!”

The idea that we are, now, creating a new category of human experience is appealing. Not only is it inspiring – but it is also a chance to reevaluate priorities. For instance, it became clear early on in the summer that allotting a significant amount of time to group building was crucial. Because our hours together are shorter and time flows quicker in a virtual learning space, it was tempting to push back on group building, and immerse our group in the purely intellectual dimension of the program: text-study, encounters with speakers, and debriefing that went along. That would not have worked and, in fact, didn’t, on the days we attempted it. To be truly focused within the virtual, to be immersed enough to overcome distractions, we have to really like the other people in the little rectangular boxes on our screen – we have to like them enough to stay all in, watching out for their subtlest reactions, listening to what they might say or imply.

To achieve that, we used a variety of games, playful icebreakers, as well as more serious, reflective group activities in which people got to know each other better: norm-setting conversations, journaling, group processing, and more. Early in the day, for a while, we ran the “Opening Circles” routine: three learners, fifteen minutes on the clock, and three questions, anticipatory of the day’s themes but adjusted so as to invite personal experience and engender storytelling.

Because in the large-group virtual gatherings it is nearly impossible for learners to get to know each other, cultivating relationships on zoom requires lots and lots of time in breakout rooms. For me as an educator, these “rooms” are particularly unsettling. I don’t have a way of knowing what happens there, and that bothers me. In a real-life setting, I love walking around the learning space, while people are clustered in small circles and conversations are abuzz. I can linger, lean in, react facially if not verbally, and answer questions. In contrast, this summer I did not feel that it would be right for me to pop into people’s breakout rooms – too disruptive of the very flow we’re trying so hard to achieve. Yet, as the summer went on, it became clear that extended breakouts were effective, and in fact, one of the favorite activities of our Fellows.

We call the module for the extended (30 minutes and up) breakout group sessions “Coffee and Havruta” and invite our participants to either stay in the allotted “rooms,” or get on the phone, or switch to Facetime. We encourage them to change their physical location, to maybe sit outside. To take a few minutes to chat and check in, get a cup of coffee and a snack – and then dive in, with pleasure and comfort that the opportunity offers.

Trusting the learners and demonstrating that trust goes a long way in developing a community where learning for learning’s sake can flourish. I’ve come to believe that with well-developed group relationships, proper framing, and great texts it is possible – even necessary – to let go, and let the learners handle this on their own. I do realize that I speak from the experience of teaching a group of self-motivated students, without the pressure of grades or literacy assessments, and it is an experience that is not always easy to replicate in a school setting. Regardless of the environment, however, it’s good to be available in the main “zoom room” and swoop in if there’re questions. Sometimes, it’s really useful to set an “outcome” to a prolonged session – a share-out paragraph or an artful flyer, or just a few lines to put in the chat.

Just as it is important to give our learners more agency in their learning, I believe that it’s crucial to create opportunities for them to teach us, the educators, and have spaces in which they can take over the programming, and lead sessions. There is no doubt that generationally, our students are far more comfortable in the virtual than we’re. Inviting them in as co-creators when it comes to logistics, content, and design, is not admitting our inadequacy – but modeling flexibility and willingness to learn. This year I finally picked up a bunch of lingo I only vaguely overheard in the past – that residue of text-emoji-abbreviated language, the kind of slang that each generation invents to circumvent the previous one.

Dynamics aside, the curriculum itself needs to be reevaluated yet again, with an eye towards texts that are open and complex enough to both address the current moment, but also carry the gravitas of the tradition, the grain of eternity within them. Our final seminar, titled “The Unknown,” set out to contextualize our current reality “using the rich Jewish tradition of facing ‘the Unknown,’ and reading works by those who’ve contemplated it, spoke back to it, dialogued, wrote, and rose in action as the result.” Reading together the iconic Talmudic story of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai’s cave, and thinking about the sages’ bodies, dug deep into the cave’s sand, with heads bobbing above and explicating the Torah, I couldn’t help but think of our own heads, looking at each other from our Zoom’s rectangles, and talking, talking, talking. And the cave itself, the heaven and the hell of it, powerfully reflected back on our own isolation.

I was also struck by how well Franz Kafka’s “Before the Law” resonated in our learning space. The deep yearning, folklore-like philosophy, and dark humor – these are my three favorite Jewish super-powers, ones that feel particularly poignant and important now. The story addresses failed expectations, impossibility of transcendence – as well as the all-consuming desire for it. And with that, it illuminated something for our group about ourselves, in this virtual moment. Whether the screen in front of us was the gateway itself, or the menacing guard, will remain a question.

This summer, we launched an inaugural series of art workshops that went along with the rest of the learning. If the virtual realm is indeed, as Casper wrote, a new category of human experience, one that still needs to be imagined and designed, then it requires art – the fundamental and ancient tool for creating meaningful human encounters, one that facilitates enduring closeness between students. It facilitates closeness because it allows participants to surprise themselves and others with unveilings of their inner life. It allows for thoughtful and playful critique of the systems that surround us – including the very social and educational structure the learners find themselves in. Art encourages irreverence and humor. While process-oriented, it also offers an opportunity to create artifacts: tangible objects, invested with a sacred intention, which feel particularly valuable when one’s whole experience is otherwise is so intangible. Besides, doing creative activities off-screen while also staying “on” together as group is a powerful alternative to the Rabbi Shimon’s “talking heads” paradigm. We offered poetry, art, music, and theater tracks, each one taught by a practicing contemporary Jewish artist – not merely an educator interested in art, or someone conversant with basic artistic technique. Our workshops did not require any prior abilities and instead, focused on the conceptual rather than-skill oriented engagement.

More than ever, mindfulness did not feel like a nicety but an absolute necessity. Earlier in the year, I’ve written for eJP about a few of the techniques we’ve used in the virtual before, and we added occasional guided meditation exercises to those. Simply put, mindfulness rituals can help to both uphold the learning as a sacred time, and can also help retain the much-needed focus for the sessions ahead.

Admittedly, it was often tempting to compare our virtual experience to the in-person learning. And, it often felt like a continual series of compromises, and indeed, it was. At the end of a powerful day, when the learning felt so excellent that the logistics and specifics became unnoticeable, I found myself thinking: “This feels almost real.” And yet – if it is happening to us, is it any less real, less in-person? Walter Benjamin wrote: “A real translation is transparent; it does not cover the original, does not block its light, but allows the pure language, as though reinforced by its own medium, to shine upon the original all the more fully.” The task is not to “translate” our education into the virtual, but to create new and altered opportunities to access the quintessentially human, private and shared moments, when we forget the logistics, and instead experience an illuminating connection that stops the time and transcends it, and forges a bond between learners. A connection that endures, whether the wi-fi is on or not.

Jake Marmer is the Educator and Programming Director of the Bronfman Fellowship. He is also a contributing editor for Tablet Magazine, and the author of three poetry collections: Cosmic Diaspora (2020), The Neighbor Out of Sound (2018) and Jazz Talmud (2012).