The 76th annual meeting of the American Jewish Committee Philadelphia/Southern New Jersey was supposed to be a bit different than this. Really, a lot different.
Like, black ties and champagne flutes-different. Toasts would’ve been raised to the newly installed board members. A far cry from a Zoom call, to say the least.
But as with everything the AJC has done in the past few months, the lack of in-person gathering didn’t deter the organization from providing information and analysis, nor from having a little fun.
Via Zoom, AJC national’s chief policy and political affairs officer, Jason Isaacson — remarkably, in a suit — gave an address about AJC’s recent work, with special attention paid to the organization’s stance on the anti-police brutality protests following the killing of George Floyd. And yes, there was still a toast during the board installation, sans clink.
With an ongoing quarantine, AJC has been unable to perform some of its basic functions in person. But what they’re finding, at the national and local level, is that all this online activity just might spell a bright future.
“I don’t think any of us knew, really, what to expect,” AJC Regional Director Marcia Bronstein said of her chapter’s initial assessment of life in quarantine. “What we learned is that we can be very effective working at home, which was a surprise to me and a surprise to a lot of people.”
“We have learned lessons … that we will take with us when we come back to something closer to normalcy,” Isaacson said of the national AJC’s work.
Back in February, the regional AJC had to break out the industrial eraser for its calendar. It started with larger gatherings as information about best practices for healthy behavior swirled; soon, it became clear that AJC would not be hosting anything in person for quite some time, let alone galas. Isaacson recalls a February flight, filled with masked passengers and frequent sanitary wiping, as the indicator that things were going to be very different, very soon.
Quickly, the national AJC created a team that would be dedicated to AJC’s new virtual life. Regional AJC Associate Director Hilary Levine was snapped up in that process, and working with other AJC employees across the country, they created Advocacy Anywhere. It’s a platform for “exclusive video and phone briefings featuring leading figures, audio segments on the issues of the day, hard-hitting AJC analysis, and ways you can take action from your computer, tablet or smartphone.”
In the past few months, AJC has garnered 2.7 million views on its exclusive videos, featuring addresses and interviews with diplomats, thinkers, researchers and writers.
“We thought we were always good at social media,” Bronstein said, “but all of a sudden, now with the virtual platforms, we’re getting people tuning in from different countries in Latin America, and different places in Europe, and it’s bringing together isolated communities and making them feel connected to a whole, so it’s been amazing.”
Regionally, Bronstein and her team have been in contact with other Pennsylvanians in ways they had not been previously. Collaborating with like-minded Jews across the state for virtual lobbying missions has never been easier, and many more regional viewers are being reached through AJC’s increased online presence.
It’s not just been a boon for engagement, but for internal AJC communication, too. Besides the daily staff Zoom calls that keep everyone on track, the Friday morning board calls have become a place for robust discussion. When those meetings were in person, according to outgoing AJC president David Smith, it could be troublesome to get everyone together in the same room. Now, everyone can make it, and they’re ready to engage on the issues of the day and on AJC’s agenda.
“My experience over the last couple of months has been that participation has been better, deeper and broader during this social distancing period than it was before,” Smith said. He hopes to see some version of these online board meetings continue past the end of quarantine. (Alan Hoffman is the incoming president.)
Even the national AJC’s IT department has held weekly open houses for question-and-answer sessions. AJC’s staff and board members have formed internal Pilates classes and storytelling sessions for their kids, all via Zoom.
It’s not all peaches and cream; Bronstein and others were excited to attend AJC’s Global Forum, which was to be held this year in Berlin, to commemorate 75 years since the end of World War II. Though the in-person event was canceled, anyone with an internet connection will be able to see addresses from Benny Gantz and Angela Merkel, among other luminaries.
Still, all things considered, the last few months have presented some interesting new opportunities. And disappointed as she and others may be about missing out on Berlin, she’s still holding out hope for one special event this year.
“The only thing on my calendar that I know for sure is happening in the fall that we’re committed to is that Chanukah reception,” she laughed.