Without in-person classes last spring, many of us felt lost and struggled to connect with our communities. However, my Jewish youth group has stayed very active through Zoom over the past ten months. I believe that there are so many lessons that can be applied to distance learning from how communities have come together through these tough times.
My youth group is called the North American Federation of Temple Youth (NFTY) and it’s a Reform Jewish youth movement of high schoolers from across the United States and Canada. It is my favorite thing in the entire world. Prior to the Covid-19, the nineteen regions of NFTY would have weekend-long retreats every two months or so with mixers, programs, and creative religious services, as well as two North American wide events a year.
Staying connected with the Jewish community is easy even online because the people that want to be there show up and the people longing for connection often do too. But you might wonder, why would one go to school online all day and then stay online afterwards in structured programs? Because the structure supports the needs of the people it serves. A huge difference between the online NFTY community and distance learning is that on NFTY calls, there is a huge emphasis on inclusivity and unity. For example, we introduce ourselves with our pronouns and we aren’t forced to turn our cameras on, even though almost everyone does.
Many of the programs we run are educational, but they are run in an approachable, interactive way through discussion, fluidly integrating the chat, Padlets, Jamboards, Mentimeters, and breakout rooms to create a complete experience.
So much of what we do is designed to foster community, which is what we really need right now. I think that school administration and teachers could learn so much from such communities about fostering connections and keeping people engaged.
With everything on Zoom, so many doors were opened for connections between regions that wouldn’t have been possible otherwise. In the Spring, NFTY did a Friday night service every week. One week, my friend from Minnesota and I co-wrote and co-led one of the services, even though we were in entirely different parts of the country. In the service, which was based on the poetry of Shel Silverstein, we had participants from every region read a poem in the service. We reached teens from across North America and brought light to our peers during dark times.
A group of us in three different time zones worked together on a series of programs on how to lead effective virtual programs and services for other teens. My youth group’s emphasis on teens leading other teens is so crucial for engagement. Teens understand what teens enjoy in a way that adults usually don’t and teens can get other teens to come to Zoom calls way more effectively than adults can. Teens also tend to be better with Zoom and other technology than most adults, which has been an obvious shortcoming with the implementation of distance learning. Involvement of teen voices has proved to be the most important aspect of creating online opportunities for teens. Such involvement of teen voices could improve distance learning opportunities as we enter midterms and prepare for second semester.