By Rabbi Yael Buechler
While the rest of the world may be Zoom fatigued, over seventy families have continued to sign on for a free Zoom toddler music class twice-a-week. Why do these grownups and their babies, toddlers, and preschoolers keep coming back, as they have been since March?
An answer in our community is the musician, Amichai Margolis, who is the Debbie Friedman or Raffi of Zoom. While Amichai literally works magic in terms of engaging both grownups and children alike on Zoom, there is also a percentage of the Zoom program that is attributable to a few other factors that all Jewish organizations can utilize to make their virtual programs even more successful.
Here are 10 tips we have learned from the same engaging music class:
1) Brevity: We started the class as 15 minutes long and a few weeks into the class, we extended its duration to 20 minutes. It turns out that meaningful Jewish engagement for grownups and kids alike can take place in just 20 minutes!
Tip: When publicizing your program, also include the end time. This will encourage participants to come on time.
2) Promptness: When the expectation is that a program starts on time, families not only join on time, but they even come a few minutes early. We typically have about 25 families join 2-3 minutes early just to have Amichai say hello to their children individually (the families remain muted).
Tip: Start the Zoom about 10 minutes early and have live music playing as families enter the Zoom. This way families enter feeling welcomed onto the Zoom and into your community.
3) Joy: Zoom can feel like a real class with proper and well-timed engagement. Your musician can engage with your audience by noticing and commenting on what participants are holding or eating. Amichai loves to comment on what kids are having for snack, what toys they are playing with, or anything else connected to their surroundings. This makes students feel more noticed and helps to replace some of the small talk that is sometimes missing on a Zoom.
Tip: If the musician is talking about something a student is doing (such as participating with enthusiasm), the Zoom host can Spotlight that student so others can see the student on the screen.
4) Chat: Use the chat function to ask for input to songs (not song requests, but comments connected to songs). For example, on Tuesdays, Amichai asks families to type in things that they are thankful for and on Fridays, Amichai asks families to type in items they would like to put in their soup for Shabbat.
Tip: In non-chat moments, keep the chat to “host only” as preschoolers sometimes like to type! This can be distracting to the musician, Zoom host, and audience.
5) Muting: Even though you might be tempted to unmute a student to give an answer to a question, those precious seconds of unmuting and re-muting (and hearing a parent on a call or a younger sibling wailing in the background), loses your audience for a brief few seconds in an already brief program.
Tip: Use the chat function instead if you would like students to share answers.
6) Hosting: Having someone at Zoom mission control (aside from the main musician) is an integral part to making your Zoom program a success. This host can Spotlight students who are doing actions connected to a specific song. For example, during the “There’s a Dinosaur Knocking My Your Door” song, I Spotlight different families holding their dinosaurs. During a family blessing song, I Spotlight any family that is holding their hands on the keppe of their kids.
Tip: Practice Spotlighting in advance. The latest Zoom updates offer different Spotlighting options. I prefer a previous edition of Zoom that only permits Spotlighting one screen at a time, while more current versions can allow for multiple screens to be shown at once.
7) Talent: Find yourself one of the best Jewish musicians out there! Because we are remote, the possibilities of connecting with amazing Jewish talent are endless.
Tip: Do a Zoom sound check in advance with that musician and find out how you can best support them as a host on the Zoom.
8) Script: Stick to the program and don’t clutter with extraneous announcements. Anytime we ever mention an upcoming school program that is not related to our current class, I start to see the numbers drop in attendees (similar to how our attention starts to drift as announcements are made in the synagogue setting!). The more people are engaged in your program, the more they will come back for a future program.
Tip: If you have an upcoming program that you would like to publicize, put it into an email with a link to register.
9) Reminders: In the midst of our busy pandemic schedules, families benefit from reminders about your class. We send out a timely reminder each Tuesday and Friday morning at 8:30 a.m. for our 10:00 a.m. class.
Tip: If for some reason your class is not meeting, send out a recording of a previous class. This way, families can still benefit from your program even when you are not having a live Zoom.
10) Farewells: End the Zoom with a quick goodbye from the musician. There is no need to wait for folks to sign off the Zoom.
Tip: By clicking “End Meeting for All” for a smooth finish, this will leave participants excited for the next time everyone comes together again.
This class has demonstrated that the possibility for increasing Jewish literacy through Jewish music on Zoom is astronomical. At The Leffell School, I am so fortunate to have had the opportunity to experience the excitement of this class as a parent as well. When my children were learning remotely, my toddler and preschooler eagerly awaited Amichai’s Zoom. They sang the songs from this Zoom all week long and still sing the songs from these classes at any given moment.
Here are some testimonials from parents in the class:
“Amichai Margolis’s song sessions are by far the BEST thing on Zoom.”
“We are so appreciative of this special school and are grateful that lots of children are experiencing such love right now.”
“Thank you for welcoming us into your virtual community.”
My hope is that these tips will inspire other Jewish organizations to find ways to continue to engage young families on Zoom in the next few months.
Rabbi Yael Buechler is the Lower School Rabbi at The Leffell School in Westchester. Rabbi Buechler (@midrashmanicures) is the founder of MidrashManicures.com and recently designed a Matza Playhouse for young families.