By Beth Cousens
It seemed to take forever, and, it doesn’t look like it used to, but finally: Summer is here.
First, there was palpable hope, and then loss. And it wasn’t just the beds and the bugs and the juice we were craving. It was the human and Jewish growth that summer usually facilitates, the chances for relational learning and connection, for bringing to life Jewish time and values, for true joy – all of which provide a rich foundation for living, and living Jewishly, that feeds so many throughout their years.
But now, even as we mourn what could have been, Jewish organizations are harnessing what can be and creating something extraordinary, something that can’t duplicate but can help us access many of those goals.
For sure, as consumers, as parents, as board members and as funders, our expectations of summer need to be different. Most of the new experiences won’t be immersive, with participants spending their entire days doing one thing. Some of our kids will find one activity that’s just weekly; others will feel compelled by an opportunity that’s intense but brief. It all might seem thin compared to what they would otherwise have. But life always happens in layers: It isn’t a one-time event that makes the entirety of a summer, or the entirety of our life, but it’s the repeated experiences that we have that create commitments, knowledge and engagement. And, each experience is also valuable, even if too short: In each, we find laughter, or a connection, or meaningful conversation, and ultimately help our young people find their Jewishness and their humanity.
Summer is here: www.jewishtogether.org/summer5780.
(Re)Inventing Jewish Engagement
Geographic boundaries don’t matter in online programming. Anyone, anywhere can participate in a program – if they know about it. That’s why Jewish Federations of North America created the #Summer5780 portal. An offshoot of JewishTogether.org, the portal harnesses the creative energy and opportunity of one community and brings it to those in another other.
But maximizing participation can’t be and isn’t only about a website. It’s also about how we work together, as Jewish organizations not infrequently in competition with each other, toward real interdependency, openness and trust. Because people aren’t spending time only with one organization or another, because they’re not in programming overnight or 9 to 5, we now have opportunity to help them enroll in the opportunities led by many different organizations. And when we need to focus resources on the in-person camp we’re running – but running only for a portion of families who are comfortable coming back or able to come back – we need a product to give to the rest of our typical customers. Remember Miracle on 34th Street, and the mitzvah of sending a customer across the street to “get it at Gimbel’s”? Different season, same thing: an opportunity to reset the playing field and to maximize engagement. For communal professionals focused on attracting people to an exciting array of Jewish experiences, to all the layers of experiences, this is our moment, together. #Summer5780 gives any organizational leader another opportunity to meet your constituents’ needs: Share the site with your people, find additional opportunities for them to have a meaningful summer, and meet your goals by leveraging the resources of partners.
Designing More – and More
So far, Summer5780 hosts programs, activities and resources from about seventy-five organizations. But there could be more – there can’t be too much, and so part of #Summer5780 is supporting the field toward that growth.
So far, we’ve started that work by borrowing an idea from Silicon Valley: the design sprint.
Moving from idea to program is always hard. Pre-pandemic, we had months to ideate, to test and develop assumptions, to move from idea to reality. But now, we’re trying constantly to catch up, reinventing our work over just days. We asked, How could we build a thoughtful and productive but also lightning-quick creative process? How could we deliver for summer when summer was already here?
A traditional design sprint brings people together to work on a single solution to a shared problem. We facilitated our first design sprint in May and, in this case, organizations gathered around our common challenge but developed, through conversation with their colleagues, their own unique response.
We created five virtual meetings in a two-week period (including an introduction and a debrief), and in those sessions, forty individuals from 35 organizations worked together to turn their ideas into programs – fast. We recruited creative thinkers from Jewish organizations around the country – national and local, large and small – to participate. We gathered on Zoom to discuss design questions, consider long-term outcomes, and brainstorm. Participants pitched their ideas to each other in small groups. That out loud story telling was the most important part. By repeating the idea over and over to people they don’t work with, they sharpened their idea and got diverse feedback. The process helped strengthen each idea.
Alan Scher, associate executive director of the 14th Street Y in Manhattan, said about the sprint, “How audacious to ask for hours of our time when we’re all so busy right now. But it was an opportunity to be part of something great. All of us rose to the moment, and it was a fascinating experience.” Although he didn’t come in with a specific idea, the process helped him come up with one. “I was able to road test it with the people I was suddenly involved with, and connect with them behind the scenes. Consequently, at the end, not only was I excited, but the people in the room were excited, and when I shared it with my colleagues in the New York JCC community, they were excited about it too. I truly birthed an idea, field tested it and brought it close to fruition.” That idea – the Great Scavenger Hunt, a different kind of virtual camp program – will come to life this summer in collaboration with other New York JCCs.
At the end of the Design Sprint, participants voted for four initiatives that will receive funding from JFNA. This seed money will help get those ideas off the ground, but the Design Sprint process itself gave all of the initiatives a boost that will enable many of them to become actionable over the summer. Design sprints will continue, likely focused on specific issues including racial justice, service, gender equity, art and celebration. If you’re interested just email us. (Find a full list of initiatives developed in the May Design Sprint here.)
This is exciting work, but it isn’t simple to move our Jewish summer online. Moreover, that online aspect of our work is becoming more complex: As quarantine exhaustion becomes more intense and as economies restart, we are seeing further shifts in the way we do business. We can imagine in the future that online won’t be our only mandate, but that people will be spending increasing time in small groups as well as off-line as they crave activity that lets them be screen-free.
There are dozens of initiatives still to be rolled out, even still to be invented. We’re still going, and we’ll build something beyond loss, something differently rich and meaningful, something we could never have imagined.
More than that, we will learn the behaviors and develop the organizational capacity to fit our pieces together, to rebuild the Jewish landscape for the now normal. We’ll find ways to elevate individual creativity, to find answers everywhere, to spread power. The moment is now, the work is hard, and we’re running to catch up. But we have each other in a way that we never have.
Submit an opportunity to the #Summer5780 portal here.
Josh Satok is the Summer 5780 Manager at Jewish Federations of North America. He can be reached at Josh.Satok@JewishFederations.org
Beth Cousens is Associate Vice President for Jewish Education and Engagement at Jewish Federations of North America. She can be reached at Beth.Cousens@JewishFederations.org.