Rabbi Menachem Schmidt thinks people need to connect with each other now more than ever.
“People are reeling,” the co-founder of Jewish Heritage Programs said. “A lot of people are trying to figure it out, whether it’s a job or their own business.”
As anyone who has attended a virtual event can attest, networking online can be tricky. A Zoom happy hour to catch up with friends and coworkers is one thing, but mingling with a screen full of strangers may feel daunting.
Jewish networking groups are helping members navigate the new landscape by connecting them via Zoom breakout rooms, private chats and other online tools.
Jewish Business Network, a JHP program, hosts power lunches that typically feature a CEO or comparable organization leader and offer audience members an opportunity to network among themselves. Past speakers have included the CEOs of QVC, J&J Snack Foods and the Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia.
JBN moved the events online two months ago. On Aug. 19, the organization featured Dan Kessler, president of Energage, who discussed his research on how the pandemic has impacted work environments.
Mark Spool, president of Management Development Solutions and a volunteer at JBN, said speakers work with JBN staff prior to the start of a Zoom event to decide how they will interact with the audience and mimic the atmosphere of an in-person Q&A session.
Some are comfortable interacting directly with audience members raising hands; others prefer that questions are submitted to the Zoom chat in advance.
Schmidt encouraged people interested in connecting with other participants to use private Zoom chats to exchange contact information.
The Main Line Chamber of Commerce also has replaced its in-person lectures and business card exchanges with Zoom presentations and breakout rooms.
On Aug. 24, MLCC hosted Virtual Network at Noon, which encouraged attendees to introduce themselves to their fellow business professionals via 30-second presentations on Zoom.
Vice Chair Bob Cohen said the organization hired a professional production company for virtual events to provide members with a more interactive experience than simply logging in and watching a video.
During presentations by speakers and panels, members join breakout rooms to discuss topics in small groups for up to 10 minutes before reconvening with the rest of the audience.
“During these interactive smaller sessions, we recommend that people share their contact information and use it as an opportunity to build connections for further follow up,” Cohen said.
He noted that some members find the smaller format to be more accessible than traditional gatherings.
“Some people are shy. They may not be able to work a room with 300 people in it. They may be more comfortable in a Zoom with five or 10 people in it,” he said.
Jewish Graduate Student Network’s approach to connecting graduate students and young professionals is also rooted in small, intimate gatherings. Chavurah, a program created by Hillel International, brings participants together in small learning groups, or chavruta, to discuss Torah and current events.
The learning cohorts are capped at 12 participants and meet for multiple sessions. Program Director Mallory Kovit said the format encourages conversations and helps students build relationships with each other. It also provides young adults with an opportunity to process stress about current events in a supportive group setting.
“It’s a beautiful way to continue conversation that’s a little deeper,” she said.
Kovit also has arranged Zoom coffee dates with young adults who are new to Philadelphia and unsure how to meet people without being in-person.
After an initial chat, she puts them in touch with leaders from other groups relevant to their interests, whether it’s a campus law society or a cultural organization for Russian-speaking Jews.
“For many of them, there is a concern of not meeting anyone,” she said. “Just meeting someone new is such a thing you take for granted and having someone introduce them to you is important.”