Guest Blog

5 Tips for Holding a Successful Online Rite-of-Passage Celebration

– by Jen Anolik

May 27th, 2020

On the desk in my home office, a computer and tablet were each signed into a different zoom meeting. My tablet echoed with doorbell sounds as thirteen teenagers signed on, faces flushed, excited. I took attendance. We were preparing to celebrate the teenagers’ accomplishments in Kol Koleinu, the national Jewish feminist fellowship they had participated in for the past 9 months, run by Moving Traditions in collaboration with NFTY.

Kol Koleinu invites young Jewish feminists in 10th-12th grade to explore and deepen their feminist knowledge, channel their voices to share their beliefs, and use their skills to create tangible change in their communities.

I told the fellows, “In a few moments we’ll all sign into the Zoom webinar, where you’ll arrive on the online version of a stage.” We went over their speaking roles. I emphasized that although they would have an audience, this event was to celebrate them. “It’s okay to be nervous. You don’t have to be perfect. The most important thing is to enjoy yourselves.” I took questions and then, one by one as if their images flew through the space between my tablet and computer, they logged off and reappeared on the zoom window on my laptop – on stage.

At a time when in-person graduations and end-of-year events have been cancelled, teens are missing out on important rite-of-passage experiences. In-person events can’t be completely replicated online. However, it is possible to create a virtual graduation ceremony or other rite-of-passage event where teenagers can showcase their accomplishments to their community and experience an important sense of closure. Here are some things that I learned as we planned the end-of-year Kol Koleinu event.

1. Provide both a small intimate gathering for graduates and a big gathering for the whole community.

Priya Parker, author of The Art of Gathering and host of the new podcast “Together Apart,” in which she reimagines virtual gatherings, suggests that as guests go, end-of-year celebrations should “go big and go small:” Big so that graduates have the honor and experience of presenting in front of a crowd, small so that they also get comfort and intimacy of a celebrating with just people they know.

Our end-of-year celebration included a public event on Zoom webinar in which we invited the fellows’ families, friends, and friends of Moving Traditions and NFTY. In this large celebration the guests had their audio and video disabled, with the ability to access the chat function, as they watched the fellows celebrate their accomplishments. After the public event was over, the fellows and I had an after-party where we reflected on the year, shared gratitude, and played some Jackbox games online.

2. Give graduates a role in planning the event and an active role during the event.

As I told the fellows, this event was for them: to celebrate them, to showcase their work, and to provide end-of-year closure. About a month before the celebration, I put up a whiteboard on zoom and asked the fellows to write down all of the things that would make the  celebration special to them. Then I asked them to star what they found most important. Some of the more popular requests were to present their social change projects, reflect on the past year, share hopes for the future, sing together, and play some games.

As we designed, I made sure to weave in as many of their requests as possible. I emailed around a Google Doc where they each signed up for a speaking part. By being a part of the planning and having to prepare a presentation for the event, each of the fellows had a real stake in the event and were able to showcase their leadership in real time for their community.

3. Set a dress code.

This is one of the simplest tips but can make a big difference. At a time when many of us have been joking about changing from our daytime pajamas to our nighttime pajamas, there aren’t many opportunities to get dressed up. And putting on a special outfit can be a powerful mental marker of an important occasion.  Clothes can shift our mindset from “I’m at home on a regular Sunday night in front of my computer” to “I’m attending my graduation.” Clothes can also help participants feel like part of a community. For instance, I asked the fellows to wear the shirts they got at our retreat in the fall.

On the topic of appearances, I don’t know about you, but one of my least favorite things to do is watch a recording of myself speaking to a crowd. Not to mention watching a recording of myself speaking to a crowd…while I am speaking to a crowd.  For people of all genders, and young women especially, staring at the video of themselves during a video call can bring up body image concerns and self-criticism, and can be really distracting. Because of this, I strongly recommend that teens select “hide self-view” so their image disappears and they only see the other people on the call.

4. Keep it short and provide multiple modalities.

Many people have been talking about Zoom fatigue—the experience of feeling drained after spending a short period of time on video chat. To address zoom fatigue, I recommend keeping the public portion of the event no longer than an hour. Also, utilize many different modalities like slides, short presentations, music, games, reflection, and conversation. Having a range of different modalities within the event can make the time feel like it’s going by faster and can hold a group’s attention.

Different types of activities can also help evoke different emotions that help the teens process the end of the year. While presenting a final project can make graduates feel proud and excited, a meditation might make them feel sad or contemplative about the end of the year, and music can bring up a range of feelings.

5. Add drama and lots of pomp and circumstance!

Like I mentioned at the outset, an online end-of-year event cannot completely capture the experience of an in-person event. Nothing can replace thunderous applause, walking onto a stage, or post-event hugs or high-fives. But there are still some ways to add extra drama to an online event. For example, imagine a closed curtain with one person in front speaking into a microphone. Then imagine the curtain opening to reveal all of the graduates. We somewhat replicated this by beginning the evening on “speaker mode” where the audience could only see one person speaking. Then we changed the view to “gallery mode,” pulling back the metaphorical curtain to reveal all of the fellows to our audience.

In addition, when we awarded certificates to the fellows, each slide was animated so that the certificates flew on screen as I read off the names of the graduates. Finally, at the end of the event, we moved all the guests “backstage” so that we could all see and hear each other. Then talented musician Chana Rothman led us in an interactive closing number before the fellows and I left for our after-party.

Whether you’re putting finishing touches on a graduation program, thinking about summer online events, or even thinking about “opening ceremonies” for the school year—in which the platform is still TBD—it’s important to think about every step of the program and what will work for your participants and audiences. Every youth deserves that time in the sun, even if it has to shine online.

Jen Anolik runs Moving Traditions’ Kol Koleinu national Jewish feminist fellowship, in collaboration with NFTY and now USY.