Silver Linings: Building New Strategies in the Face of COVID

Silver Linings: Building New Strategies in the Face of COVID

OTS’s Yachad Program for Jewish Identity offers Israeli Jews who identify as secular an opportunity to explore and reclaim their Jewish heritage through communal programming based in the local community centers.  But what happens when the community centers are closed because of COVID?

As the saying goes: “Necessity is the mother of invention.” The 42 Yachad program coordinators working in Israeli communities from the southernmost city of Eilat all the way to the Northern border with Lebanon have been working together over the past several months to created innovative new ways of reaching people of all ages. “In fact,” says program director Shay Nave, “many of the new,nationwide programs will likely continue long after COVID-19 is a distant memory.”

As long as Israeli Ministry of Health guidelines allow for the facilitation of outdoor programs, the Yachad coordinators have been running capsule-based kabbalat Shabbat events and other activities such as concerts, tours and plays for children in their communities’ parks and outdoor spaces. During times of lockdown, the coordinators have, like the rest of the world, become experts at using online tools to engage people of all backgrounds.

Online Programs Reach an Expanded Audience

For example, “Sukkot is typically a time when we tun many programs throughout the week, to bring people into the communal sukkah and build connections to Judaism and to one another,” relates Tal Brill, the Yachad Program coordinator in Pardes Channah. “But of course, the country was under lockdown, unable to meet in person, so we ran two Zoom programs each day of the holiday in order to be sure to reach children, young couples, adults and senior citizens.”

One of the Yachad program’s innovative Sukkot initiatives was “Ushpizoom” – a clever play on the word “Ushpizin,” the seven ancient Jewish figures we traditionally invite into our sukkot on each of the festival’s seven days. Other programs featured Jewish content as a means for providing the much-needed support and connection craved by people during a time in which many experience loneliness, anxiety and depression.

Yachad volunteers build sukkot for people in need prior to the festival

Still other national programs being run during the lockdown period include virtual online tours of Israel; workshops with a licensed drama therapist; Jewish story hour; creative activities for kids facilitated by art therapists; weekly Kabbalat Shabbat with well-known Israeli singers; as well as ongoing classes and shiurim that the Yachad coordinators usually offer in person, at the community center. “To be honest,” says Brill, “there is a very definite silver lining to our online activities in that it enables us to reach incredibly large numbers of participants.”

Even Reaching the Diaspora

The reason for this is obvious, explains Yachad’s coordinator in Yokneam, Shlomit Weber. “Not only can we bring our own locals to appealing Zoom programs, but we’re able to attract people from locations all over Israel as well. In some cases, relatives living in different communities across Israel will ‘bump into each other’ in one of our Zoom programs,” she reveals, “and we have even reached participants in the Diaspora, who tuned in after finding out about us through friends in Israel or the Facebook page.”

Weber, like many other Yachad coordinators, has also harnessed the feelings of camaraderie and togetherness brought about by the pandemic to galvanize teams of local volunteers to learn about and enact the Jewish value of chessed. Older adults, teens, young adults and families have all gotten involved as volunteers, delivering food packages to people in need, picking up medicines for elderly citizens unable to leave their homes, and delivering items to people around the holidays.

Strong Communities Based on Jewish Values

Weber further developed a program specifically for families, centered around the Jewish holidays, in which each family is matched with a specific older adult, to deliver a package of traditional items (hamentashen for Purim, matzoh for Pesach and honey cake for Rosh Hashana) to an older adult in the community.

“Not only do these programs bring families together and connect them to the holidays,” Weber explains, “but in many cases, the families have developed an ongoing relationship with the person they are matched with, so that they continue to call and check in even during regular, non-holiday periods. Many of these elderly people are really alone. Their children and grandchildren may not visit. They are very lonely, and they really appreciate this personal connection. It’s been wonderful for everyone involved and I hope it will become a national program,” she says.

“We all recognize that COVID-19 will likely be with us for quite some time, and that we need to adapt,” relates Yael Swartz, the Yachad coordinator in Tirat HaCarmel. “We are already working with our colleagues in the community centers to build a schedule of programming for the entire year; programs that will likely look very different than any we have previously held, but which we hope will continue to build strong, Jewish communities in Israel and connect Israelis meaningfully to their heritage.”

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