Tuesday, May 12, 2020

By Shoham Nicolet

This time of unprecedented crisis also carries one of the most significant opportunities the Jewish world has ever encountered. 

Distance learning has existed for many years, and Zoom is not a new platform. The coronavirus did not bring video conferencing to the world. For now, there is essentially no technological innovation around online learning that has arisen in direct response to the pandemic.

The dramatic shift, rather, is within us. The people. We are going through an accelerated evolution process. We were forced into an extraordinary paradigm shift of communication, collaboration and sharing experiences. In the education system, online learning never really fulfilled its premise despite substantial investment in the field. COVID-19 then swooped in and adapted the entire educational system overnight, for both teachers and students. It is far from perfect, but it is happening.

Meeting virtually, learning together, virtual teamwork, collaboration and sharing experiences are now becoming natural to anyone, not only the veterans of the tech world. Learning connects more people than ever. This change creates a tremendous opportunity that will last far longer than social distancing restrictions.

Today, we can and should reimagine Jewish education. We must dream about making it affordable and accessible to anyone, anywhere – not as a replacement for Jewish day schools, but as a complementary effort to keep our children connected to Jewish heritage and Israel. We will see new hybrid models allowing any community to plug-and-play into Jewish experiences wherever they are. We can envision the day when the Hebrew language is truly the connective tissue of the Jewish people.

The notion of peoplehood is much more relevant when the world is flatter than ever before. The need for a sense of belonging and solidarity is not a luxury, but a necessity. Along those lines, there are five key principles that the Israeli-American Council (IAC) has implemented during the COVID-19 crisis in order to leverage the historic opportunity before us.

No Copy-Paste Allowed

The IAC’s key mantra right now is, “Don’t try to copy and paste the physical world to make it virtual.” Don’t hold webinars, but rather live educational and engaging experiences. The physical world has irreplaceable energy, but the virtual world has no boundaries and creates its own magic. Engaging people over Zoom is a challenge and keeping them focused during a session is not easy. Mixing multiple technologies, gamification and project-based sessions are only some of the approaches that can make a virtual session a desirable one.

Aim high

In normal times, we could not bring Israeli pop stars to sing with us at Kabbalat Shabbat. We could not bring thought leaders and artists from Israel and the US for a 2-hour learning festival open to all. Over 2,500 households participated in our recent coast-to-coast Israel Remembrance Day Ceremony, which is bigger than we could have imagined in previous years. Virtual programming opened these doors. Producing more than 150 live productions, each one of them bringing high-profile speakers from across the U.S. and Israel, would have been impossible for the IAC just two months ago. Now it is a reality.

Learning quickly

Virtual sessions are less “forgiving.” In the physical world, people spend time and energy to prepare to attend an event. If the event does not meet their expectations, they most likely will still stick around. In a virtual meeting, the audience is one click away from leaving the meeting. There is no tolerance for mediocre products. This is why at the end of each IAC virtual session, we hold a debrief to learn what can be improved for the next session. This culture of learning inside an organization is something that will stay with us post-corona.

More bang for the buck

The cost of reaching more than 30,000 people through more than 150 activities in only five weeks, with experienced staff members and prestigious guest speakers, would probably be 10 times greater in the physical world considering travel, accommodation, speaker fees and production details. We are looking forward to getting back to the physical world, but the fact is that these days we create value with much lower overhead. What can we learn from this for the day after?

Partnerships and collaboration

It has never been easier to collaborate with other Jewish organizations in the U.S. and Israel. Setting up meetings, and working around a shared goal, has never been more natural. This crisis brings us together, with far more humility, and keeps everyone’s eyes on one goal – taking care of our community and especially the young generation, while making sure they maintain their connection to Jewish identity and Israel.

Shoham Nicolet is Co-Founder and CEO of the Israeli-American Council.