Emotion Before Content: Evidence Based Recommendations for Designing Virtual Jewish Engagement

As the ongoing pandemic requires us to protect one another by staying apart, organizations across the Jewish sector are unlocking the secret to engaging meaningfully with young Jews in digital spaces. How? By nourishing hearts first, and minds second.

Great virtual events leave participants feeling happy, relaxed, connected, and twice as likely to attend another event by the same or another organization. Poorly executed or unsatisfying virtual events can have a negative effect on participants, leaving them more tired, disconnected and frustrated, and more than 50% less likely to participate in another event by any organization.

New market research commissioned by the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation and the Jim Joseph Foundation shows the key to successful virtual events for Jewish young adults is designing virtual gatherings more intentionally for the emotional experience of offerings than they would for in-person gatherings, where content can drive.

What separates successful virtual events from unsuccessful ones is their ability to meet one or more of three key needs: communityfulfillment and fun.

(Full report on the data and findings is here.)

COMMUNITY AND CONNECTION

Right now, more than learning or growing, just feeling a sense of togetherness seems to be the most important thing.”

Young Jews are looking to connect. Of our respondents, 84% report it’s especially important to connect with other people, 70% feel it is particularly important to connect to something Jewish now, and 63% have participated in something Jewish virtually since the pandemic began. There, young Jews seek belonging, intimacy, personal connection and/or the opportunity to meet new people with whom they share commonalities.

BBYO, a high school youth organization, heard through alumni Facebook groups that their alumni were eager to reconnect. “It was very organic,” says Rebecca Cohen, Director of the Anita M. Perlman Women’s Leadership Initiative. “We said to them, ‘if you want to connect, we want to be that convener for you.’” They supported alumni with planning, experts, technology and communications through a variety of events from socializing to opportunities to mentor teens. Leveraging existing identity, community and culture meant that the gatherings felt “easy and comfortable” as one participant put it.

The Kavana Cooperative in Seattle has created brief, 30-minute community touch-points every Friday evening. Rabbi Rachel creates multiple opportunities for deep connection, including prompts for sharing and space for participants to be intimate and vulnerable with one another: celebrating happy occasions like new babies and birthdays, holding each other as families move through chemo, addiction or loss, and acknowledging all that’s happening in the world around, from COVID to conversations on systemic racism and democracy. Then they conclude by singing Shabbat table blessings together. “Zoom has been a great equalizer,” said Rabbi Rachel Nussbaum. “It has removed any hierarchies or perceived differences between those who know more or sing louder… and thus has become our community’s space for authentic connection regardless of anyone’s usual Shabbat practice.”

Things you might consider:

  • As the host, setting culture and structures for connection is even more important online. Humanize experiences by inviting people to bring their full selves and make connections. Invite honesty, vulnerability, humor or needs.
  • Create opportunities for participants to connect in small groups, like in breakout rooms, even for five minutes during the event. When in larger groups, encourage the use of hand signals to reduce awkwardness and support equitable virtual discussions.
  • Design to build on aspects of relationships, identity and/or a sense of belonging to maximize relevance and connection satisfaction.
  • Offer a personal touch by calling people by name. Help people feel “seen” and build a sense of intimacy in the group.

FULFILLMENT

The event was based on a collection of food and clothing for those affected by the pandemic in my community… I was proud to participate in this cause.”

It has been difficult to remain at home, distanced from many of the activities young Jews turn to for social, emotional and spiritual fulfillment. Many are engaging in more casual, at-home behavior – 75% of respondents said they have spent time on an existing hobby or developed a new hobby in the last few months. Our research showed that successful events support participants in discovering new insights, discussing an issue they care about and leaving the event with meaningful or actionable takeaways.

The Great Big Jewish Food Fest in May, designed to maximize virtual environments while restaurants were closed, leveraged available talent and offered novel experiences, such as a tour of Jewish delis across the country, or famous chefs cooking “together” in their home kitchens in Tel Aviv, Philadelphia and New York City. The combination of entertainment, practical skills and exclusive access drew more than 20,000 people. As one participant said, “It lifted my spirits and provided content that was interesting and informative. The programs inspired me to re-read Jewish recipes and recipes in general that my mom had hand written and passed on to me… It brought me closer to my Jewish roots and identity through food.”

JDC Entwine, known for its impactful global travel and volunteer experiences, has designed virtual programs that will be evolved into a fully blended platform once the pandemic is over. One such opportunity enables young adults to volunteer for an hour per week over three months with isolated JDC-supported elderly and teenagers overseas. Participants receive pre-service training, regular check-ins and support as a cohort, and have flexibility in how and when they connect with their overseas “client” for company, conversation and/or practicing English. “This opportunity truly nourishes the soul in a challenging time in our world…. It is an absolute joy to be able to put my Russian to use and to connect with a teen client in Odessa,” said Shoshana from Ohio.

Things you might consider:

  • Design for activities your audience is already doing, or specific needs they have.
  • Consider how you want participants to leave the event feeling – happy, relaxed, excited, informed, empowered, connected? How will your design inspire that feeling?
  • Keep participants engaged by including active, participatory elements such as writing, drawing, learning in chevruta (with a partner), or sharing back insights with the group through a chat function or discussion.
  • Leave participants with a new idea, ritual, skill, recipe or playlist. Include meaningful activities participants can do after the event.

FUN

It was nice to laugh with a group of people. So much sadness and disease is overtaking the world and so much time and energy is (rightfully) focused on it. It was a much needed break.”

It is harder to find pockets of fun, and yet our research finds that fun is the most significant element to differentiate a worthwhile event from one that felt like a waste of time for young Jews, by a 30+ point margin. ‘Fun’ can be the main purpose of your event, or an embedded element. It can be light and silly, or something that just provides an opportunity to unwind and relax.

Jewish Geography Zoom Racing, a playful Zoom-based game similar to ‘Six Degrees of Separation’ in which contestants race through their network to connect to “The Chosen One,” a person about whom contestants only know a few bits of information, has become a weekly event that stirs up social networks and evokes playfulness of Maccabiah at Jewish summer camp among thousands of viewers and dozens of participants. “Everybody is available right now,” says founder Micah Hart, “and the surprise and delight of reconnecting with someone through this game makes people smile and is nourishing for the soul!”

The Marlene Meyerson JCC Manhattan runs Adaptations and Connections, programs for adults with special needs. They regularly design for sensory and social comfort because reducing anxiety helps people “feel safe and relaxed,” says Dorsey Massey, Director of the Center for Special Needs Programs + Inclusion, “and that provides a moment of respite from the rest of the world.”

Things you might consider:

  • How can you manifest that personality of your event in every aspect of what you do, from the invitation to the welcome to the content?
  • The host of an event serves as a kind of MC that sets the tone. As one respondent described: “The main speaker/host needs to be enthusiastic, friendly, and interesting. It doesn’t matter how great of a program you have if the host’s robotic introduction causes everyone to immediately sign off.”
  • While many are starved for a sense of playfulness, small doses can go a long way. Consider adding elements of playfulness in small doses, like an introductory activity (Pictionary) or built into transitions (Who goes next? Rock paper scissors!)

ADDITIONAL TIPS

One of challenges with online events is that we miss so many social cues and social norms that we’d otherwise feel in person. Our research found many events can feel awkward and anxiety provoking because of the lack of attentiveness to establishing these norms. Some tips:

  1. The cold start of online events lacks the transitions into the event that help people feel present, ready, and together (like riding the elevator together, seeing people as you walk in, settling into a chair with others are your table). Instead set the tone! For example, “Attire: business casual from the waist up” sets a certain humorous tone even for a somewhat serious event.
  2. Designate someone to manage the tech (admitting people in the waiting room, managing break outs, dealing with tech support in the chat, muting people as needed) who is not presenting or running the program.
  3. Use the technology tools to your advantage to avoid participants feeling awkward and overwhelmed. For example, utilizebreakout rooms to support discussion on topics with other participants in smaller groups.
  4. Design with more structure than you would for in person events. Online gatherings lack the casual, emergent cadence of being in a room together.Include formal introductions, put a list of participants in the chat so everyone is clear about who goes next, or posting discussion questions in the chat before you go into breakout rooms so everyone knows what they are supposed to be doing.

Jewish organizations have done an incredible job transitioning to virtual programming that plays meets the key needs of Jewish young adults right now. Satisfaction is high, as are intentions for repeat engagement. We hope the findings from this research and the focus on connection, fulfillment and fun will help organizations and funders expand on the good work already happening.

We would love to hear examples of how you are designing for and/or experiencing connection, fulfillment and fun in your online events. Please share your stories in the comments.

About the research: Benenson Strategy Group surveyed 1,001 American Jews nationwide, ages 18-40, from June 29 – July 15, 2020. Surveys were conducted via an online panel; respondents have all opted in to do research and receive invitations to the survey through their preferred method of contact. Our survey then screened respondents for self-identification as Jewish. You can review the detailed results here.

Rella Kaplowitz is the Senior Program Officer for Evaluation and Learning at the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation, making sure the Foundation has the right information to strengthen its work. During the pandemic, Rella and her family are finding community, fulfillment and fun through virtual tot Shabbats and story time with cousins, family art time, Challah baking and dance parties.

Stacie Cherner is the Director of Learning and Evaluation at the Jim Joseph Foundation where she oversees the research and evaluation work of the Foundation. She and her husband are in California, living (with one wifi connection) with a teenager and young adult who are also trying to find community, fulfillment and fun online and offline.

Lisa Narodick Colton is the Founder and President of Darim Online and Darim Consulting, working to help Jewish organizations adapt to the digital, connected age. In addition to her consulting work, she was the Executive Producer of The Great Big Jewish Food Fest in May, an effort which gave her (and hopefully a few others) connection, fulfillment and fun even before this research was conducted.

Source: “Emotion Before Content: Evidence Based Recommendations for Designing Virtual Jewish Engagement,” Rella Kaplowitz, Stacie Cherner, Lisa Narodick Colton, eJewish Philanthropy, September 10, 2020

New project aims to document Covid-19’s impact on Jewish community

A small coalition of leading Jewish foundations aims to chronicle American Jews’ experiences during the COVID-19 pandemic in an ambitious, multi-part project.

The initiative intends to document how the Jewish community was impacted by — and responded to — the novel coronavirus. Much of the project focuses on bringing largely underrepresented Jewish voices — including those of Jews of color, LGBTQ Jews and Jews with disabilities — into the documenting of American Jewish history.

“Crises have been moments in which Jewish wisdom gets forged. That’s part of the Jewish story,” said Aaron Dorfman, president of the Lippman Kanfer Foundation for Living Torah, which initiated the project. “We do kind of a remarkable job of making meaning of and integrating into Jewish tradition our experience of catastrophe, and this felt like a moment like that for the Jewish people and the world,” he told Jewish Insider.

Lippman Kanfer is being joined in the funding collaborative by the Jim Joseph Foundation and the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation. Altogether they have committed $240,000 to the effort.

Much as the Talmud records the manifold ways that Diaspora Jews adapted to life after the Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed, Dorfman said, the new project aims to document the ways in which American Jewish life is being transformed through adaptations made necessary by the pandemic.

“We’ve been interested in innovation and this moment has almost forced us into an innovation mindset,” said Stacie Cherner, director of learning and evaluation at the Jim Joseph Foundation. “We realized we should try to capture as much of the good innovation happening to hopefully learn and continue what’s been positive out of all of this. So when we go back to ‘normal’ we can hold onto some of the things we learned during this time.”

The funding collaborative brought together 11 historians, archivists, librarians, social scientists and museum professionals from May through July, who developed a four-part chronicling plan.

They began by identifying two challenges, according to a request for proposals that the funding collaborative will publish later this week. The first is that current COVID-19 documentation efforts are decentralized and duplicative. The second is that the voices of underrepresented parts of the American Jewish community continue to be missed.

The four projects designed to remedy that include: the creation of a web portal to allow anyone to access links to all collections related to COVID-19 and the American Jewish community; a grassroots effort to collect American Jewish family stories; a research paper on exclusion and underrepresentation in American Jewish history; and convening of communities that have been traditionally excluded from American Jewish history documentation.

“Most of documented American Jewish history has been of Ashkenazi Jews,” said Annie Polland, executive director of the American Jewish Historical Society, which is based at the Center for Jewish History in Manhattan and includes 30 million documents. Polland is a historian and a member of the new project’s advisory committee. “Now more than ever within the Jewish community, we are understanding that we need to engage communities to understand and incorporate different stories into what we know as history.”

“At a time when the country is engaged in deep thinking about who are Americans and what stories we have not been telling, it’s almost like archives become that much more important in the work.”

While formulating the project, the funding collaborative assembled a landscape map of 59 different Jewish pandemic-related collecting efforts already underway. Those include efforts by the American Jewish Historical Society, Jewish Federations of North America and the Smithsonian Institution, and religiously affiliated organizations like Yeshiva University, centrist Orthodoxy’s Rabbinical Council of America and the Conservative movement’s Rabbinical Assembly. Others are regionally focused, at the Jewish Museum of Milwaukee and the Jewish Historical Society of the Upper Midwest. All will be invited to be linked in the planned web portal, Dorfman said. The funding collaborative made multiple attempts to reach Agudath Israel of America to ask them to participate in their effort, but received no response from the umbrella group representing the interests of the ultra-Orthodox, said Dorfman.

Separately, but related to the new four-part initiative, AJHS received a Lippman Kanfer Foundation grant to conduct a COVID-19 oral history project involving 36 Jewish leaders, including doctors and heads of organizations.

Source: “New project aims to document Covid-19’s impact on Jewish community,” Debra Nussbaum Cohen, Jewish Insider, August 26, 2020

Choosing to be a Jewish Educator: Concepts With Which to climb the Cliff Face

Recently, I’ve been interviewing Jewish day school educators about how they’ve tried to provide meaningful educational experiences to students over virtual platforms. These have been some of the most humbling professional conversations I’ve ever conducted.

I was once a day-school teacher myself. I was drawn to the work because I had a knack for getting young people excited about Jewish culture and the Jewish past. Teaching was fun. It was exhausting, but I was energized by the opportunity to be creative and to touch the lives of the next generation.

As I talked with these educators, I was overwhelmed by a sense that none ever imagined how difficult their work would be: needing to reach their students for months on end, by video; helping address students’ mounting concerns about their futures; supporting especially those who say repeatedly “I learn best in person.” None ever reimagined their work would look like this.

In the days since the last of these conversations I’ve been asking myself how many of these people will have the appetite to stay with this acutely challenging work, how many might be let go by their employers like so many others in less fortunate sectors; camps, JCCs and Federations, for example. We, and they, don’t know. As I recently heard my colleague, David Bryfman, argue, the most challenging aspect of this pandemic is that we don’t know when it will end. Our lives are gripped by extreme uncertainty.

Our team at Rosov Consulting is in the midst of a major study of the career trajectories of Jewish educators that, we believe, can help educators and their employers navigate some of this uncertainty. The work, part of a larger study commissioned about six months before the pandemic by CASJE (Consortium for Applied Studies in Jewish Education), is sponsored by the Jim Joseph Foundation and the William Davidson Foundation. We didn’t know then how relevant it would be to our present uncertain moment. It might be even more useful when the community is ready to rebuild for a new reality.

We’re currently wrapping up a survey of thousands of young people about their career choices. Even before we complete this data gathering effort, our work provides clues that can help educational leaders skate fast to wherever the puck might make it on what is a decidedly icy surface.

The survey was shaped by a preliminary investigation of the concepts that shed light on the meaning of career today; the factors and forces that shape the desire to pursue a career, and specifically a career in Jewish education. This investigation involved an extensive literature review, interviews with key informants in the field, and focus groups with early career educators. A working paper about this work, Preparing for Entry: Concepts that Support a Study of What it Takes to Launch a Career in Jewish Education, can be found here.

This preliminary work shows that choosing to work as a Jewish educator and deciding to enter this field as a career – regardless of the defining characteristics of this current moment – results from the interplay of four contributing componentsProvisionally, we call them stimulipersonal assets, enabling opportunities, and inhibitors. Stimuli are the factors and forces that whet an interest in and stoke a passion to work as a Jewish educator. Personal assets support an individual’s readiness and capacity to become a Jewish educator at any point along their pathway to the field. Enabling opportunities are the frameworks and programs that help translate an appetite to work as a Jewish educator into a readiness and capacity to be one. Inhibitors are the circumstances and pressures that discourage individuals either from working in the field of Jewish education altogether or from making a career in this field.

We don’t yet know the relative importance of these different concepts and their salience among different populations in predicting whether someone will enter the field of Jewish education or not. What we do know from our review of literature on the career choices of educators and of those in fields that call for clinical knowledge, care and civic commitment is that these concepts are continually in tension. People draw on strong reasons for doing (and continuing to do) this work; they won’t and can’t take on the work without access to skills and resources that help them perform well; and even when ready and able to embark on this work, they can still be deflected by economic, professional and personal circumstances.

Of course, each person’s story is different, but viewing career entry and retention in conceptual terms can be profoundly useful. Concepts are the crimps that help us climb the smoothest cliff faces. They give us something on which to hold as we advance across uncertain terrain. The concepts we examine in the Preparing for Entry paper distill bodies of knowledge that indicate what draws quality educators to their work. They reference factors that are known to deter or defer particular career choices. They reveal what interventions, supports and resources can enable a promising individual to commit to this field even in the most challenging circumstances.

These concepts help make sense of why, as I was told in one recent interview, a young educator, living alone under lockdown far from family and responsible for the education of tens of high school students, has nevertheless persevered with this impossible task, providing his students with inspirational Jewish content. Concepts turn a moving anecdote into a theory of action.

Alex Pomson is Principal and Managing Director of Rosov Consulting. 

originally published in ejewish Philanthropy

Jewish Emergent Network Rabbinic Fellowship to Sunset

Last week the Jewish Emergent Network sent off seven early-career rabbis with love and blessings, after they’d been immersed in the practices and communities of the Network’s seven organizations for two years. The Rabbinic Fellows include Rabbi Keilah Lebell at IKAR in Los Angeles, Rabbi Joshua Weisman at Kavana in Seattle, Rabbi Tarlan Rabizadeh at The Kitchen in San Francisco, Rabbi Emily Cohen at Lab/Shul in New York City, Rabbi Jeff Stombaugh at Mishkan in Chicago, Rabbi Mira Rivera at Romemu in New York, and Rabbi Jesse Paikin at Sixth & I in Washington, D.C.

The Jewish Emergent Network’s Rabbinic Fellowship spanned four years and two cohorts, and helped shape 14 members of the next generation of entrepreneurial, risk-taking, change-making rabbis. Each Fellow took on a variety of independent rabbinic tasks while immersed as a full-time clergy member at one of the Network organizations, and received supervision and support from leaders within the host organization. Throughout the program, Fellows met regularly as a fully assembled cohort, traveling to each of the seven Network communities for learning intensives at which they trained with Network and non-Network rabbis, teachers and other experts from around the country. Throughout, the Fellows had the chance to engage and share best practices around innovation and creativity with regard to Jewish community building. The Fellowship aimed to fortify these early-career rabbis with skills that will equally prepare them to initiate independent communities, and be a unique value – and valued – inside existing Jewish institutions and synagogues. Each Fellow was steeped in the spirit and best practices of the Network organizations and is poised to educate, engage, and serve an array of target populations, especially young adults and families with young children.

To mark the end of their Rabbinic Fellowship, the Fellows released a podcast that was intended to be part of a capstone project presented at the Jewish Emergent Network’s postponed (RE)VISION20/20 conference. Listeners can tune in here to listen to these seven dynamic rabbis answer a real congregant’s question about whether a drug-induced state is a credible way to get close to God.

Meanwhile, the leadership of the Jewish Emergent Network organizations are using what they learned in piloting this Rabbinic Fellowship to design path-breaking adult education and leadership development programs set to launch in 2021. The Network also recently partnered with REBOOT to produce 12-straight hours of streaming Shavuot content experienced by over 30,000 people, and is currently working on collaborative and accessible Elul and High Holy Day programming. Stay up-to-date at jewishemergentnetwork.org and on social channels @JewishEmNet.

The communities in the Network do not represent any one denomination or set of religious practices. What they share is a devotion to revitalizing the field of Jewish engagement, a commitment to approaches both traditionally rooted and creative, and a demonstrated success in attracting unaffiliated and disengaged Jews to a rich and meaningful Jewish practice. While each community is different in form and organizational structure, all have taken an entrepreneurial approach to this shared vision, operating outside of conventional institutional models, rethinking basic assumptions about ritual and spiritual practice, membership models, staff structures, the religious/cultural divide and physical space.

Funding for the Jewish Emergent Network and its Rabbinic Fellowship program was generously provided through a grant from the Jim Joseph Foundation. Significant additional funding was also provided by the Crown Family, the Charles H. Revson Foundation, Diane & Guilford Glazer Philanthropies, the William Davidson Foundation, the Righteous Persons Foundation, the Lippman Kanfer Foundation for Living Torah, and Natan. The Network is working with current funders and cultivating prospective funders in connection with its next major projects and ongoing field-building work.

Source: eJewish Philanthropy

First-ever National Jewish Educator Census Underway

The first-ever National Jewish Educator Census (the Census) is currently conducting a count of the number of Jewish educators across multiple sectors of American Jewish life, as well as other information that will help Jewish education attract new educators, return educators to the field, and best prepare for a post-COVID-19 world. As the ongoing study collects data at the organizational level, leaders of eligible Jewish educational organizations will receive email invitations over the next few weeks. After July 31, organizational leaders who have not received an email with a link to the census, conducted by CASJE (Consortium for Applied Studies in Jewish Education) at George Washington University, can request an invitation until August 15 here.

The Census, led by Dr. Ariela Greenberg, Founder of The Greenberg Team, is part of the CASJE Career Trajectories Study, a multi-year, national research effort addressing the recruitment, retention, and development of educators working in Jewish settings in North America. The study is funded by the William Davidson Foundation and the Jim Joseph Foundation.

“National organizations and local communities need to understand the people power that creates and delivers Jewish education,” says Dr. Arielle Levites, managing director of CASJE. “With the participation of a maximum number of organizations, we can more accurately estimate the number of Jewish educators in the U.S., better understand who makes up the Jewish education workforce, provide targeted opportunities for professional development, and critically, strengthen the pipeline of educators. The strength of this pipeline is essential to sustaining Jewish education, particularly at this uniquely challenging moment.”

The Census originally was designed pre-COVID-19 to launch mid-March and request an extensive amount of data from organizations to develop a rich portrait of who Jewish educators are in the U.S. today. However, due to the COVID-19 shutdowns and to respect the limited time of Jewish organizational staff during this world-wide pandemic, the study team modified the data collection to the most critical and relevant information. Additionally, with input from organizations across multiple sectors of Jewish education, the Census team is collecting data on staffing changes since March 2020 and organizational needs in the face of COVID-19. The team will conduct a second census in 2021 to capture the important demographic data more comprehensively and highlight how the corpus of Jewish educators may have changed from 2019 to 2021.

“We understand the urgency of the moment as Jewish organizations plan for tomorrow, for the next six months, and for the long-term. This Census is not a snapshot study continuing in a vacuum from reality,” adds Dr. Greenberg. “Funders and decision-makers in the field need these year-to-year data to best support Jewish educators. Organizations can support the entire field and help themselves by participating in this unprecedented effort.”

Ensuring that a strong and high-quality pipeline of educators exists is one of CASJE’s primary objectives. The Career Trajectories study has taken on greater importance as communities face myriad challenges created by the pandemic.

Our Virtual College Road Trip is About More Than Just College

Imagine the wind in your hair and good music coming out of your car radio. You and your family are road tripping to a college town. You are going to find the best burger place, sit on the grass in the quad and dream about the future. You might even check out the Hillel while you are there or see that family friend who is now a student. You might sit in on a class, you might go to a game, but you won’t go home without that hoodie from the campus store that says, “I went somewhere, and I am going somewhere.”

The college visit road trip, more than just a rite of passage for those fortunate to have the means, is an inherently hopeful act. For many of our teens and parents, visiting campuses is the culmination of years of work and planning, studying and dreaming. It is that first step out of the house and into adulthood. There are so many hopes and expectations wrapped up in finding the right school. The school you can get into. The school you can afford. The school where you can be happy and flourish.

Planning for the future is a hard thing to do right now. In so many ways the future is unclear. Families are potentially dealing with financial realities due to COVID-19 that seemed impossible just months before. On top of that with cancelled Spring Breaks and prom behind them and cancelled camp and graduations still ahead teens are feeling robbed of key moments in their lives. While those losses are small compared to the global unrest, they are real for our teens and their families.

With no ability to travel, the college visit road trip seemed destined to be yet another milestone cancelled. That is why JumpSpark Atlanta4Front Baltimore and the Jewish Teen Education and Engagement Collaborative are partnering for the first-ever national virtual road trip for all college-bound teens and their parents. Since the road trip kicked off at the end of May, over 6,000 teens and their families have visited Roadtriptocollege.org. In the first week of programming, more than 500 people attended sessions with thousands more engaging with social media content. As families and teens #Jumponthebus throughout the month of June, they are able to join virtual college tours with current students, admissions staff, and Hillel professionals, participate in teen and parent workshops and interact via daily student takeovers on Instagram.

Amidst all the excitement of college exploration, the virtual road trip has also emerged as an important platform to process the fact that both the road we’re on right now and the one ahead are rough. From uncertainty about the future of on-campus experiences to the turmoil currently wracking our country in the weeks since George Floyd’s murder, staff from Atlanta and Baltimore have leveraged the road trip to explore things like the impact of Covid-19 on the admissions process, the importance of diversity to the college experience, the role of higher education in anti-racism, and the history of student activism and Black-Jewish cooperation in university settings.

In short, this has evolved beyond what any of us could have imagined when the virtual college road trip idea was first generated. It is more than just college information sessions moved to Zoom. Rather, it is a deep immersive experience, exploring through a unique lens the issues that matter and seeking to recapture the feeling of actually visiting a school, speaking with students and faculty and imagining yourself there. In the midst of this pandemic and national tragedy, a new concrete way has been created to help teens envision and transition to the next chapter of their Jewish lives.

And it is more than that, too. This is giving families back something which we all so desperately need at this time – the opportunity to engage in hopeful acts together.

So, how can you #Jumponthebus?

1.       Visit RoadTriptoCollege.org

This is the home base for everything happening on the college road trip. Find information about all the colleges, students and workshops being featured. Browse the resources or register for information sessions, parent webinars and teen workshops. Miss something?  Sessions are also on-demand on our YouTube channel.

2.       Follow our Bus Drivers at @JumpSparkATL and @4FrontBaltimore

Over 100 college students or recent graduates have been engaged meaningfully to help drive this experience. JumpOnTheBus and follow our student ‘bus drivers’ on Instagram Stories to get their insider guides to their campus and college towns – what they love, what makes the place special, and what Jewish life is like there. More than a virtual tour, here’s your?chance to see things through a student’s eyes. Reference each college page for social links, dates and times of these tours.

3.       Turn up the tunes with our student curated Jump on the Bus Spotify playlist

4.       Check out our TikTok to see daily college student-created videos about their schools.

Kelly Cohen is Director of JumpSpark in Atlanta. Rabbi Dena Shaffer is Executive Director of 4Front Baltimore

Inspired by Springboard Chicago, which ran a virtual College Road trip in partnership with JCC Camp Chi in March, this immersive iteration was the brain child of JumpSpark, based in Atlanta, and originally featured colleges and universities in the South. Through the cooperative opportunities of The Jewish Teen Education and Engagement Funder Collaborative, 4Front Baltimore joined up and added schools from the mid-Atlantic, growing the list to over 30 schools. The Funder Collaborative s an innovative philanthropic experiment. In an unprecedented collaboration, national and local funders work together to develop, nurture and scale new approaches to teen engagement. This innovative learning and sharing network has created an environment that fosters risk-taking, experimentation and ongoing reflection. 

Source: eJewish Philanthropy

Amid the pandemic, Jewish day schools survive (and even thrive)

Jewish day schools were quick to pivot from a traditional in-class setting to online classrooms, and as the academic year winds down, they are taking stock of where they stand, what they have accomplished and how to move ahead in a COVID-19 world.

On a recent June night, 25 people, primarily young children, sat on their couches and watched as a puppeteer explained how he creates his puppets and how they could build their own with materials they have one hand. In another “room,” about a dozen people watched as an artist explained how he uses paints to create depth and design.

Welcome to the annual end-of-year art celebration at Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School in Rockville, Md. Traditionally held in person, this year’s event—like events at schools around the country—took place online with the “rooms” separate live video streams that families could tune into.

Across the country, Jewish day schools were quick to pivot from a traditional in-class setting to online classrooms, and as the academic year winds down, they are taking stock of where they stand, what they have accomplished and how to move ahead in a COVID-19 world.

“Jewish day schools have worked incredibly hard, and as a result, we have been world leaders in providing a virtual education in this period,” said Paul Bernstein, CEO of Prizmah: Center for Jewish Day Schools.

New York Times article on May 9 highlighted the success of remote learning at the Chicago Jewish Day School, which provided more than four hours of live, online instruction daily after the coronavirus caused brick-and-mortar schools to close their doors this spring, in comparison to many public schools that provide only limited live, online programming. Other Jewish day schools, similarly, provide multiple hours of online instruction each day.

“As a private school, we had leeway and flexibility to get creative about the way we were teaching and make sure we reaching the whole child’s emotional and social well-being, even if it’s through a screen,” said Ilyssa Greene Frey, director of admissions at The Rashi School in Dedham, Mass., a Jewish elementary school outside Boston.

Part of the that early success came as a result of the pandemic hitting the Jewish community in New Rochelle, N.Y., particularly hard in early March. The Salantar Akiba Riverdale Academy (SAR) was the first Jewish school—and the first school in the nation—to shut down on March 3. It reopened virtually two days later, and within days, was sharing its findings on virtual education in a webinar with other Jewish day schools around the country, facilitated by Prizmah.

Salanter Akiba Riverdale High School on 259th Street in Riverdale, Bronx, N.Y. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

Right away, teacher training went into effect on how to utilize a virtual-learning platform with communication to parents about the next steps. Administrators also ensured that all students had access to computers or iPads for class and arranging for electronic devices for those students who did not; in a number of cases, families may have had only one device and the parents were using it, or there were not enough for each child in a family to be online at one time.

That level of detail, along with online instruction that seemed to run circles around what the public schools managed to offer these past few months, has attracted interest from Jewish families that previously had not considered a Jewish day school for their child.

Officials at The Rashi School, which enrolls 250 students in grades kindergarten through eight, began seeing interest from prospective parents relatively soon after its classes went to an online platform on March 18.

“Families are seeing that Rashi is able to provide an education experience for their children that the public schools just cannot, and that is driving some the inquiries we are getting,” said Frey, noting that officially, admission for the 2020-21 school year closed just before the pandemic hit.

She notes that interest from new families has been particularly strong for enrollment in its middle school, where tuition can run upwards of $40,000. (Tuition begins at $29,900 for kindergarten and goes up from there.)

Among the new families joining the school will be the Shilman family, with eldest son Nathaniel starting kindergarten this fall.

“In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, we remain uncertain what the next school will be like; however, our decision is more certain than ever,” said Nathaniel’s mother, Stella Shilman. “Rashi has been great at keeping new students up to date with plans during quarantine and continuous efforts in online learning. From my conversations with other families, Rashi was able to quickly transform to virtual classes and continue to advance academic studies while maintaining connections within their community, beyond walls of the school.”

Those connections, said Shilman, included a virtual “play date” where Nathaniel got to meet some of his new classmates.

Students thank their teachers during an online Zoom class. Source: The Rashi School via Facebook.

The Jewish Community Day School of Greater New Orleans has also seen increasing interest in its program.

“We’ve had a few families that are looking at us more seriously and a few that have already applied not just because of what we’ve done online, but because we are a smaller school and they feel we can take appropriate precautions for in-person learning,” said Brad Philipson, the Oscar J. Tomas head of school chair. The school is also working with a regional hospital system that has developed a safe-return system for when classes reopen in August.

According to Rabbi Mitch Malkus, head of school at Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School, for those families who could afford to send their children to day schools but “weren’t committed to the value proposition of spending time in a Jewish day school, this has changed the equation for them. They may have felt in the past that the public school was good enough, and now they are seeing it is not good enough.”

At Charles E. Smith, parents who have been impacted by a job loss or furlough because of the pandemic will be eligible for tuition from a special emergency fund so as not to strain the general tuition-assistance fund. “We look at COVID-19 as something that will have a one- or two-year impact on tuition-assistance requests,” said Malkus, “but we wouldn’t be able to sustain this additional level of support in the long run.”

Malkus added that local donors have stepped up, but he’s hoping to secure even more gifts.

“When we were thinking about our emergency fund, we looked back to see what was needed in the great recession of 2008-09, and historically, how many people left the school,” said Malkus. “We are trying to address economic crisis from COVID-19 as best we can. My hope would be that the Jewish day-school field and schools individually are working to address that this time around in ways we didn’t during the great recession.”

“At the end of the day, unfortunately, everyone has limited resources, and there is only so much fundraising that can be done, and the impact of the pandemic is pretty significant,” he added.

Malkus said that prospective families were able to join in the end-of-year, online art program, and that more than a dozen families participated in a recent virtual open house. Like at Rashi, much of the interest for new enrollment is in the upper grades—both the middle and high schools. Currently, there are 920 students over two campuses in the pre-k through 12th-grade school.

The Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School in Rockville, Maryland. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

Financial, enrollment and donor-support challenges

While an uptick in enrollment is good news, especially as the trend was moving in the opposite direction in recent years for non-Orthodox day schools, some 34,000 Jews attended a non-Orthodox day school in 2013, according to a report from the Avi Chai Foundation, down from some 39,500 in 2003. It comes as schools face new financial challenges as they examine how to reopen schools in a few short months.

Finances are always a concern for Jewish day schools, but even more so now as parents have been furloughed or laid off completely, economic downturns have impacted donors’ wealth portfolios, and the costs of doing business will rise to meet the myriad of health and safety guidelines and regulations needed to reopen schools as early as August.

A survey of 110 heads of Jewish day schools conducted by Prizmah recently found that 90 percent of them were expecting at least a 10 percent increase in tuition-aid requests for the upcoming school year, while two-thirds of schools said they anticipate tightening their budgets.

There is precedent for their concern.

The school rabbi of the Jewish Community Day School of Greater New Orleans, Michael Cohen (right) and the head of school, Brad Philipson, putting on a Zoom graduation program, a combination of prerecorded tributes and live participation. Credit: Courtesy.

During the economic crash of 2008-09, Jewish day schools across the country were hit hard. Parents who were facing  financial challenges pulled their children from Jewish day schools because they could no longer afford them. A number of school even shut their doors for good, unable to keep up with the declining enrollment and fiscal shortfalls.

The 2020 landscape, say experts, is quite different.

“We’re not hearing there is a big re-enrollment crisis, but we are hearing a lot of need for tuition from families that are struggling, particularly in families where one of both parents may have lost jobs or been furloughed,” said Bernstein.

To help ease that burden, Prizmah recently announced that it will be launching two new tuition-assistance funds for families impacted by the pandemic. One will be general tuition-aid fund, and the other is specifically for those parents who work in the Jewish communal sphere.

Both grants are being supported by the Jewish Community Response and Impact Fund, an $80 million fund that was established to help a variety of Jewish organizations and institutions weather the fiscal impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. JCRIF is being backed by the Aviv Foundation; the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation; the Jack, Joseph and Morton Mandel Foundation; the Jim Joseph Foundation; Maimonides Fund; the Paul E. Singer Foundation; and the Wilf Family Foundation.

Schools are also trying to encourage local donors to step up.

In New Orleans, for instance, school officials had hoped to raise $15,000 during the Give NOLA Day, a citywide, annual charity event. When the pandemic began and the event was postponed until June, school officials were concerned people wouldn’t be able to give so they lowered their initial benchmark to $10,000.

They wound up raising $27,000 through the campaign. (People were able to give as early as May, even though the actual “day” was pushed back.)

“The community really stepped up,” said Philipson. “We don’t have the kind of money in New Orleans that bigger cities do, but we have a lot of philanthropists who are very dedicated to the Jewish community.”

At Charles E. Smith, parents who have been impacted by a job loss or furlough because of the pandemic will be eligible for tuition from a special emergency fund so as not to strain the general tuition-assistance fund. “We look at it as something that will have a one- or two-year impact,” said Malkus, “but we wouldn’t be able to sustain it in the long run.”

Malkus added that local donors have stepped, but he’s hoping to secure even more gifts.

A teacher at the Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School in Rockville, Md., celebrates a drive-through graduation in June 2020. Source: Charles E. Smith via Facebook.

Even with assistance for parents, fiscal challenges hover above potential openings this fall.

Laurence Kutler, head of school at the Tucson Hebrew Academy in Arizona, estimates that reopening his school in early August with all the necessary health guidelines in place will cost a minimum of $40,000, including hiring an additional employee to help with sanitizing the school between classes.

That dollar amount, however, does not include the purchase earlier this year of Chromebooks for students who didn’t have access to one at home. Funds for those computers came from a private donor. The kindergarten through eighth-grade school is attended by 122 students.

“We have 38 pages of protocols from the CDC [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] and the governor’s office, including hygiene-sanitizing equipment, social distancing in classrooms and teacher-student ratios,” said Kutler, adding that they are saving some funds by bundling their supplies with the local Jewish community center and Jewish federation to keep costs on masks, gloves and hand sanitizer down.

Said Malkus, “When we were thinking about our emergency fund, we looked back to see what was needed in the great recession of 2008-09, and historically, how many people left the school. We are trying to address that as best we can. My hope would be that the Jewish day-school field and schools individually are working to address that this time around in ways we didn’t the first time.

“At the end of the day, unfortunately, everyone has limited resources, and there is only so much fundraising that can be done and the impact is pretty significant,” added Malkus.

Incorporating scenarios for social distancing, eating, recess

With so much uncertainty regarding COVID-19—and concerns of a second or third wave of the coronavirus expected come winter—nearly every school JNS spoke with is preparing various scenarios for running the 2020-21 academic year. Saying anything is certain remains … uncertain.

“We have a variety of scenarios planned,” said Wendy Leberman, director of admission and marketing at the Jewish Day School in Bellevue, Wash., the city now known for the overwhelming large number of elderly who died in nursing homes. “We have large campus and small class sizes, so if we are limited to 10 kids a classroom, we’ve looked at how we can do that. We’ve also planned how we can can go back to campus at a 100 percent [normal], how we can do remote learning in the fall or a hybrid of the two.”

Leberman said one idea is how to have teachers educate multiple classes without risking exposure from different sets of students. One solution: having an educator remain in one room to teach classes live to be broadcasted virtually to students in other classrooms.

Some schools, particularly those with large campuses or in suburban areas, are talking about taking lessons outside, at least on good weather days, with virtual classes during cold or inclement weather. Other institutions are anticipating having a group of students in class some days, with others working virtually, and then switching either weekly or every other day. (Israel began a similar policy upon first opening its schools.) Most school concede that class sizes will be kept to a minimum per state guidelines to allow ample distancing between children.

Lunch and recess are also being reimagined. Many schools said they will focus on eating in classrooms. Some added that children and teachers will be responsible for wiping down desktops before and afterwards. Because class sizes will be significant smaller—the current best estimate is 10 to 12 students per classroom—with one teacher and perhaps an aide, adults will be better able to watch that students don’t share meals or snacks.

Recess will likely be staggered so that classes aren’t mixing on the playground or ball fields. Educators will also be looking at how camps running this summer handle their sports and free time for ideas for games and athletic activities that can be done with little contact.

Also, the school day may be shortened in some areas to allow for staggered shifts and more cleaning times, which would affect recess.

Whatever it looks like, 2020 will be like 2008—a “pivot point” for Jewish education, suggested Bernstein. “The question is: How do we pivot to have good things happen? And if that means there will be some consolidation among schools in a particular area, that’s a real possibility.

“We aren’t just talking about schools closing, but of schools coming together and making something that is stronger than their individual parts,” he continued. “ … There are even opportunities between schools to share the virtual platform, which can be cost-saving. There are lots of creative ideas ahead.”

Source: “Amid the pandemic, Jewish day schools survive (and even thrive),” Faygie Holt, Jewish News Syndicate, June 19, 2020

New Jewish Service Alliance Launches “Serve the Moment” with Plans for One Hundred Thousand Acts of Jewish Service

The Jewish Service Alliance (JSA), a new coalition of organizations, today launched “Serve the Moment” to engage Jewish young adults and college students in 100,000 acts of meaningful service and learning addressing the COVID-19 crisis, its economic fallout, and the movement for racial justice. The initiative will mobilize tens of thousands in virtual volunteering, in-person service, and national service campaigns around specific issues during the year. Full-time stipended fellows, known as “Serve the Moment Corps Members,” will serve at nonprofit partners in cities across the country.

“The Jewish community is facing an extraordinary moment as we see unprecedented need in our communities and a great awakening to the fact that Black Americans and People of Color are being disproportionately impacted,” says Cindy Greenberg, President and CEO of Repair the World, which mobilizes Jewish young adults and their communities to serve, and is leading Serve the Moment nationally. “We must step up boldly and in alignment with our Jewish values to support our community and our neighbors. Serve the Moment will galvanize the Jewish community to meet pressing local needs, strengthening our country while building bridges across lines of difference. I want us to look back on this unprecedented chapter knowing that we lived our values, showed up, and made an impact.”

Powered by Repair the World, Serve the Moment is in partnership with Amplifier, Avodah, Base Hillel, Be’chol Lashon, Birthright Israel, The Bronfman Youth Fellowship, Foundation for Jewish Camp, Challah for Hunger, Hillel International, IsraAID, JCC Association, JDC Entwine, M²: The Institute for Experiential Jewish Education, Moishe House, Network of Jewish Human Services Agencies, OneTable, Religious Action Center, Tivnu, Union for Reform Judaism, Congregation Emanu-El (San Francisco), Jewish Federations of North America and Jewish Volunteer Centers, Combined Jewish Philanthropies (CJP), Jewish Federation of Greater Atlanta, The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Detroit, Jewish Volunteer Connection Baltimore, Righteous Persons Foundation; and the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation, the Jim Joseph Foundation, and Maimonides Fund through the Jewish Community Response and Impact Fund.

“The Jewish Service Alliance is an ambitious, exciting and important endeavor with the power to influence countless lives, both those serving and those being served,” adds Michael Brown, Co-founder and Senior Advisor of City Year, who is advising Serve the Moment. “Ultimately, it is the collective service of all of us, from all backgrounds, life experiences and beliefs, which empowers change, builds unity and shared purpose, and allows us to dream of a better life – and work together to achieve it. I’m honored to be a part of the Jewish community’s effort to rise to meet this moment.”

Beginning with a summer of service from July 8 – August 7, Serve the Moment will mobilize 100 Jewish young adults and college students through a four-week stipended Corps Member program, which will grow to bring on more Corps Members in the fall and spring. The Corps Members will volunteer in-person and virtually while also learning and reflecting with their peers. The initiative also will mobilize the Jewish community around specific issues, such as food insecurity, learning loss, and unemployment related to COVID-19 and racial justice, through four national campaigns during the year. In total, Serve the Moment will engage tens of thousands of young adults and college students in 100,000 acts of service and learning.

The initiative’s leaders hope their collaborative approach is a model for other Jewish organizations to work together to engage Jewish young adults in meaningful ways.

“Mobilizing a national service movement for Jewish young adults can play a critical role in helping Jewish life to persist and flourish through these uncertain and challenging times,” said Adam Lehman, President and CEO of Hillel International. “Just as important, this initiative will inspire a new generation of Jewish young adults to translate their Jewish values into serious commitments to service on behalf of the broader community, now and into the future.”

Following an intense period of evaluation and planning, Serve the Moment is responding to an unprecedented need, as vulnerable populations are experiencing loss of life, financial insecurity, and challenges accessing basic necessities and care. Additionally, as Jewish camps, communal organizations, nonprofits, and other pillars of Jewish life are disrupted, the Jewish community can invest in innovative efforts that engage young Jews in meaningful ways around a common purpose.

Volunteers can connect with Serve the Moment in the following ways:

  • Full-time Corps Members will engage in immersivein-person (with social distancing as needed) and virtual service with carefully vetted local partners who are following CDC guidelines. For example, Serve the Moment Corps Members will support vital food and supply delivery and packaging at food pantries.
  • Volunteers will engage in virtual and in-person service episodically through Serve the Moments robust menu of projects, such as online tutoring for low-income children who have fallen behind because of school closings, calls and welfare assessments with isolated seniors, food delivery, and home seed starting for urban farms that provide fresh produce to low-income families who would not otherwise have access. Volunteers can also provide pro bono skilled volunteering for frontline nonprofits such as website development, logo design, and fundraising support.
  • Time-bound national volunteering campaigns offer opportunities to engage thousands of young Jews in episodic service and learning. This volunteering is centered around key issue areas (e.g. food, education, social isolation/mental health) and holidays (e.g. High Holidays, Purim, MLK Day), inspiring and galvanizing the Jewish community nationwide to serve. Campaigns will incorporate both in-person service and digital engagement to educate participants about pressing social needs and support individuals in finding service opportunities to meet needs in their communities.

For more information, contact Jordan Fruchtman, Senior Director of the Jewish Service Alliance at jordan.fruchtman@werepair.org.

Repair the World (Repair) mobilizes Jews and their communities to take action to pursue a just world, igniting a lifelong commitment to service. Repair believes service in support of social change is vital to a flourishing Jewish community and an inspired Jewish life.

Source: eJewish Philanthropy

Advancing Racial Equity Through Learning and Action: Grants for Jewish Organizations

As cities across the United States and around the world continue to erupt in protests against anti-black violence, Jewish leaders and communities are grappling with how to respond. At the same time, many Jewish organizations are deepening their internal work for racial justice that they began many months ago – before the start of COVID-19 and before the death of George Floyd. These organizations are now better equipped than ever before to navigate the chaos of our present moment.

The Jewish Social Justice Roundtable awarded nearly $100,000 in matching grants to 21 Jewish social justice organizations for projects that address racism and promote racial equity.

These grants, made with the Jim Joseph Foundation and Lippman Kanfer Foundation for Living Torah, offer critical resources to embed practices of racial equity in organizational systems and cultures, and to honor the multiracial realities of the U.S. Jewish community.

Assessing Unmet Needs

The Roundtable had originally planned to allocate $20,000 to support organizations’ efforts. But the needs and requests for funding surpassed the initial budget. The Roundtable received 21 requests to fund strong and innovative projects related to advancing racial justice and equity, including trainings for staff or board, and retreats for Jews of Color who are stakeholders in the organizations.

Modeling a Spirit of Partnership

Motivated by the strength and urgency of the requests that the Jewish Social Justice Roundtable received, the Jim Joseph Foundation and Lippman Kanfer Foundation for Living Torah jointly committed in December 2019 to funding these projects for a total of $98,700.

Adjusting In the Time of a Pandemic

In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, most organizations are adapting their work. Led by the principle of “compassionate accountability” in our Racial Justice Framework, the Roundtable extended the time frame of the grants by six months, gave organizations more time to raise matching funds, and asked each grantee for a short update about program changes.

The grantees and their programs are as follows. Most of these were the original programs. Some have changed in response to the pandemic, and we anticipate continued changes.

  1. ALEPH: Decolonizing Earth Based Judaism: A New Ordination Track
  2. Avodah: Racial Justice Training for Managers
  3. Bend the Arc: Retreat for JOCISM (Jews of Color, Indigenous Jews, Sephardi & Mizrachi) Staff to Strengthen Relationships and Define BTA’s Racial Equity Goals
  4. Boston Workers Circle: Racial Equity Training for BWC Member Leaders and Creating a JOCSM Affinity Space
  5. Habonim Dror Camp Moshava: Diversity Recruiter for Staff and Campers and Training
  6. Hazon: Racial Justice & Equity Training: Building Multiracial Community
  7. HIAS: Addressing Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion in the COIVD-19 Era
  8. Jewish Alliance for Law and Social Action: Intersection of Antisemitism and Racism: Addressing Systemic Inequities in Our Communities
  9. Jewish Community Action: Partnership with Edot: Midwest Jewish Diversity Collaborative for JOC Field Building and Leadership Development
  10. Jewish Council on Urban Affairs: Training for Staff and Board Members by People’s Institute for Survival and Beyond
  11. Jewish Youth for Community Action: Culture Articulation Project to Impact Hiring, Onboarding, and Institutional Culture
  12. Jews for Racial & Economic Justice: Restorative Justice Program in Brooklyn
  13. Jews United for Justice: Responding to the Pandemic With a Racial Equity Lens
  14. JOIN for Justice: Centering Equity in Organizational Policies, Systems, Programs, and Services
  15. Kavod: Retreat for Jews of Color, Indigenous Jews, Sephardi & Mizrachi Caucus
  16. Keshet: Racial Equity Training and Supportive Coaching for Staff
  17. Marlene Meyerson JCC Manhattan: Racial Justice Training for Staff and Lay Leaders
  18. National Council of Jewish Women: Racial Justice and Equity Trainings for National and Section Staff
  19. T’ruah: Board Development on Centering Anti-racism
  20. Urban Adamah: Furthering Racial Equity in Hiring and Retention
  21. Uri L’Tzedek: Responding to a Culture of Hate & Bigotry in American Orthodox Judaism

This list of projects is energizing and humbling. They represent the potential to better model the multiracial multiethnic reality of our Jewish communities. And there is still a lot more work to do to dismantle racism. To learn more about ways to educate yourself and take action, click here.

Reaching the Relational Heart of Jewish Day Schools. Why it Matters.

One of the more positive Jewish communal stories at this time of communal disruption is of how hundreds of Jewish day schools, globally, have mobilized so that students can continue their education via distance learning platforms. We do not intend to re-tell the story of this important effort, nor do we propose to reflect on the outcomes created for teachers, students and students’ families. It is too early to say. We don’t yet have enough systematically collected data about these phenomena.

We turn, instead, to data gathered during easier times, just two years ago. We offer a research-informed perspective on the extent to which the shift to virtual schooling challenges the most distinctive feature – call it the beating heart – of day school education: its relational core. Appreciating the present upheaval in such terms can help educators focus on what is most important when there are so many claims on their attention.

CASJE, the Consortium for Applied Studies in Jewish Education, housed at George Washington University’s Graduate School of Education and Human Development, commissioned a study of leadership in Jewish day schools (with the support of the AVI CHAI Foundation and the Berman Family Foundation), conducted in 2017-2018. Over the past year, the team at Rosov Consulting has worked with CASJE to conduct a secondary analysis of the data gathered. The study involved surveys of teachers and students, and both interviews and surveys of professional leadership in schools. Secondary analysis has provided a chance to explore issues besides leadership.

In all of its strands, the study exposed just how much day school education is enriched by the interpersonal relationships of its main players – students, teachers, school leaders and parents. In fact, the study revealed how these relationships function as both means and ends. In their most successful renditions, these relationships both nurture and come to serve as expressions of covenantal community, what one might call an ultimate purpose of day school education.

To explain further: A study of time-use among Division Heads (second-in-command leaders in schools) revealed how in day schools (unlike public schools) these people function less as instructional leaders and more as harbor pilots. Through their conversations with parents, teachers and students, through their own personal modelling and by talking about the values at the heart of their schools, these leaders give teachers a sense of direction and they give students a sense of higher purpose. Through endless rounds of conversations and personal interactions, they help steer schools away from the rocks toward open water.

survey of teachers, and an investigation of teacher satisfaction, revealed that those who work in day schools exhibit high levels of satisfaction with their work, at levels similar to their public education peers. It showed too how the greatest sources of teacher satisfaction are associated on the one hand with the joys and challenges that derive from being with students in the classroom, and on the other from supervision by professional leaders who convey and cultivate a vision for their schools.

survey of student perspectives on school climate makes plain that the older students are, the more they associate a positive climate in their schools with the personal relationships they form with their peers and with the personal attention from and interaction with their teachers. For students, these relationships are the special sauce that accounts for why so few of them would prefer to go school elsewhere.

Woven together, these three research strands make it clear how so much of what teachers and students value about their day schools can be traced back to the quality of their relationships in the classroom and, really, in every other corner of their schools. This is a sobering insight when right now school is experienced most commonly through the medium of a computer screen.

Of course, we might want to devote as much as possible of that screen time to serious learning, to stretching students academically. These studies suggest it is no less important to use the time to ensure that the blood continues to reach the relational heart of schools. When our schools are physically dispersed, we should make especially sure to mobilize the undoubted potential of technology to continue nurturing these essential relationships.

Alex Pomson, PhD, is Principal and Managing Director of Rosov Consulting. Frayda Gonshor Cohen, EdD, is a Senior Project Leader at Rosov Consulting.

Source: eJewish Philanthropy

Virtual initiative promotes teen well-being, mental health in COVID-19 crisis

Families face multiple challenges as they shelter in place together for months and the busy lives of adolescent children are put on hold indefinitely

For Jewish Teens Struggling in the Coronavirus Era, Jewish Groups Extend a Lifeline

Makayla Wigder, a high school senior from Houston, had been looking forward to the prom, graduation and one last summer with her friends before leaving for college.

Then came the coronavirus pandemic. Now those plans appear highly unlikely to materialize.

“It’s just devastating,” Wigder lamented. “Graduation is something we’ve worked toward for the past 12 years. Finishing without a sense of closure is just really disappointing.”

With much of America under lockdown, the struggles of the sick, the elderly and those tasked with helping them are front and center. But even those with seemingly less urgent needs — such as teens, many of whom struggle with anxiety or depression in ordinary times — are also at greater risk of struggle during this epidemic, experts say.

“It was hard to be a teenager even before all of this, but COVID-19 is amplifying the most painful parts about adolescence,” said Sara Allen, executive director of Jewish Teen Education & Engagement Funder Collaborative, a partnership between local federations and the Jim Joseph Foundation.

Allen is planning a webinar in May to coincide with Mental Health Awareness Month for a network of 800 Jewish professionals who work with teens.

Many teens are feeling a real sense of grief at the loss of the traditional rituals that close out high school, Allen said, but they don’t necessarily recognize the emotion as such.

“They feel they were robbed. But it doesn’t trigger as grief, so that makes it harder for them to move through the stages,” she said. “We’re trying to help them with the language, and perhaps some kind of Jewish ritual over this loss, so they can feel a sense of agency over it.”

At Jewish federations across the country, adults who work on teen programs are recasting what they do to reach out to teens and make sure they’re OK, help them build resilience and cope with the coronavirus crisis, and even engage them in projects to help the wider community during these extraordinary times.

In Texas, Katelyn Bleiweiss, the mental health programs coordinator at Jewish Family Service of Greater Houston, a federation partner, recently led a Zoom workshop with some 40 teens to talk about resilience. It was adapted to the pandemic from a suicide prevention program, Sources of Strength, that Jewish Family Service brought to the Jewish community in Texas.

“We talked about the strengths that we had before COVID-19 — like cooking or playing with your dog or playing soccer, and how can we modify these things for the present reality?” Bleiweiss said.

For example, if a soccer player can’t play with her team, she can still practice her technique at home, Bleiwiss said, focusing on a skill or something they enjoyed before can help reduce anxiety now.

In normal times, the Jewish Family Service of Greater Houston holds in-person resilience workshops for Jewish teens. Since the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, they have been happening over Zoom. (Courtesy of JFS Houston)

“The primary focus is finding strength in your life by looking at true norms,” she said. “While there are a lot of negative stories in the media about the coronavirus, the majority of the population are healthy and most who get it actually recover, especially among young people. Resiliency to it is the true norm.”

Many Jewish community professionals who work with teens say that the crucial element of their work now isn’t so much the content of one particular program or another but connecting with teens during this time of social isolation.

Marna Meyer runs the Teen Israel Ambassador program through the Jewish Federation of Greater Houston. In ordinary circumstances, the program helps teens prepare for college and learn tools for college activism around Israel. But right now, she said, simply connecting with each other socially has become the highest priority.

“They’re feeling lonely and isolated,” said Meyer, a therapist by training. “All the phone calls, texting and Zooming isn’t the same as being with each other.”

“We’ve been really conscientious in looking for red flags,” said Rabbi Dena Shaffer, executive director of 4Front, a program run by The Associated: Jewish Federation of Baltimore, which serves as a gathering place for Baltimore’s Jewish teens to explore their Jewish identities and the issues that matter to them.

Shaffer and Meyer both said if they notice teens dropping off from programming, they make an extra effort to reach out to them.

The Big Apple Adventure is a trip to New York for teens from the Midwest Region of the National Conference of Synagogue Youth. The last such trip was in February 2020, right before the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic. (Courtesy of the Jewish United Fund of Metropolitan Chicago)

Some teens have had a difficult time adjusting to living their lives almost completely online, said Margie Bogdanow, a Boston-based consultant who works as wellness coordinator for the Jewish Teen Education & Engagement Funder Collaborative.

The trauma of this experience should not be understated, Bogdanow warned.

“This is a trauma for everybody and a trauma for the teens,” she said. “Often when people are in a trauma, they don’t express it in that moment. You see it much later.”

At the same time, many of those who work with teens say they’ve been impressed with how quickly Jewish teens have adapted to this new reality.

Across the country, teens who are part of Diller Teen Fellows, an international program with 32 global communities, including one in Chicago, created a series of “fellow spotlights” where they present or lead an online conversation on a topic they are passionate about and engage their peers in discussion.

In Chicago, an April 30 event honoring 18 teens in a Jewish leadership program called 18 Under 18 was canceled. But the teens took their Jewish leadership initiatives online, or continued already existing remote collaborations, including projects on Holocaust education in public schools, the diversity of Jewish experiences and religious pluralism.

“We have some amazing leaders who are trying to figure out ways to give back, even if they can’t do so in person,” said Sarina Gerson, assistant vice president for community outreach and engagement at the Jewish United Fund of Chicago. “Many teens want to continue their involvement in volunteer projects and social action, even if it has to happen in their own homes. They’re looking for an outlet to channel their energy in productive ways.”

Gerson said the teens she works with who have leadership qualities see the pandemic as an opportunity to make a difference in the community.

“For Jewish Teens Struggling in the Coronavirus Era, Jewish Groups Extend a Lifeline,” Alix Wall, JTA, March 4, 2020