How Can People Keep Connected to Israel When They Can’t Go There?


Clockwise from top left: Drexel Hillel’s Israel Engagement interns Rachel Sasson, Gabrielle Boiskin, Danielle Katsev and Alexa Gamburg lead a Zoom cooking class. | Courtesy of Leah Thomas
How do you help people connect with a country across the world when travel and gatherings are difficult, if not impossible?

That was the question the 2020-’21 batch of Israel Engagement Grant recipients considered when they applied for Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia’s assistance in bringing Israeli culture to their communities. Twenty-four grants were awarded to 18 organizations for the available funds of approximately $45,000, and each local synagogue, school, camp and community center came up with its own answer.

For some organizations, modifying Israel engagement programming means moving classes and events to a virtual format.

David Weiss, executive director of Habonim Dror Camp Galil, said the camp plans to offer online Hebrew classes for young adults as well as virtual programs for synagogues and day schools on topics like democracy and Zionism, art and culture, immigration and ethnic groups and life on the Gaza border.

One of the main priorities is keeping the programs targeted at younger kids interactive and engaging. The curriculum about Ethiopian aliyah, for example, typically involves a visit to an escape room.

“We’re not going to be able to visit an escape room right now, but there are other ways in which the kids can interact and offer their thoughts and feelings on the subject we’re talking about,” Weiss said. Games and activities will be a main component of the virtual lessons.

Greater Philly Hillel Network is using its grant to support its Jewish Graduate Student Network Israel Fellowship. The fellowship welcomed its second cohort in 2020, and fellows have conducted virtual programming about food in Israeli culture, Middle Eastern politics, Jewish identity and the nonprofit sector in Israel.

Mallory Kovit, program director of Jewish Graduate Student Network, said the virtual format has not changed the fact that the program is designed to be student-led.

“It’s not coming from a staff person saying, ‘This is the Israel program you’re going to do,’ but rather, they’re asking for speakers, they’re asking for content for whatever they’re planning,” she said.

Greater Philly Hillel Network also recently launched a separately funded partnership between West Chester University and universities in Israel that connects students at both of the schools for learning sessions about pluralism, Jewish identity, racial justice and democracy over six months.

The Israeli Film Festival of Philadelphia canceled in-person viewings just after they started last March. In September, the organization used its grant, as well as support from private donors, to screen films online for free.

“We actually had a tremendous response because of the fact that people could watch it from their home and not have to go out,” said Mindy Chriqui, founder and artistic director. “I would say more people watched the films, than would normally have come to our actual venues.”

Other organizations are making box kits, which have proven popular during socially distanced holiday celebrations.

Leah Thomas, director of Israel, wellness and civic engagement, said Hillel at Drexel University is creating Israel Subscription Boxes modeled after brands students already use, like Blue Apron and Stitch Fix.

Drexel Hillel has four Israel Engagement interns that are responsible for having 10 friends “subscribe” to their Israel box each quarter and attend their virtual event related to the learning activity for that box. In October, the interns hosted a virtual cooking event where they taught their peers how to cook shakshuka and had a conversation about multiculturalism and Israeli food.

Lisa Litman, director of jkidphilly at Jewish Learning Venture, wants the content of jkidphilly’s boxes to focus on the diversity of Israeli culture, ancient history, spirituality and scientific discoveries.

“This year, I’m really hoping that we will focus on the five senses, and how we experience Israel physically and emotionally,” she said. “So we may provide visual art materials for a live session with an Israeli artist or an Israeli chef, and maybe thought-provoking games or puzzles or some combination of PJ Library books with those other things that families do on their own time to enhance their relationship with Israel and with being Jewish.”

Other organizations simply decided to postpone programming that has to take place in person.

Jack M. Barrack Hebrew Academy plans to use a grant to host History of Israel Through Fashion, a runway show of Israeli fashion curated by educator Liraz Cohen Mordechai, in the spring of 2022.

Meryl Sussman, director of Israel education, experiences and special projects, said the runway show includes clothes that reflect movements in Israeli culture and history. Topics such as immigration, early wars, feminism and equality on kibbutzim and recent technology booms are all represented via their impact on outfits.

Barrack hosted Mordechai for a virtual assembly in early December. Her “Fashion of Resilience” presentation examined how Israeli creativity has flourished during challenging moments in the country’s history.

Adath Israel in Merion Station had a wide variety of programming planned for 2020 using an Israel Engagement Grant it received during the last grant cycle, and almost all of it needed to be modified. A December mission to Israel was canceled, and a presentation from Israeli photographer Udi Goren scheduled for Israel Independence Day was postponed before eventually taking place virtually.

“I am grateful to the Jewish Federation for the funding to support connection to Israel, and also for the flexibility to adapt our original plans to maintain that connection, even in these difficult times,” Rabbi Eric Yanoff said.

The synagogue wanted to bring musician Rabbi Josh Warshawsky to host a Koolulam, or Israeli mass singing event, with Perelman Jewish Day School, Barrack, Temple Sinai in Dresher and other organizations in April 2020. When the pandemic made group singing impossible, Warshawsky gave a virtual concert for the synagogue to mark the occasion and returned later in the year for a virtual Chanukah concert.

Yanoff said he is hopeful the Koolulam can take place when it is safe to gather again.

“We say it every year, at the end of Yom Kippur, we say it every year at the end of the Passover seder: Next year in Jerusalem,” he said. “Even if it’s not this year, it’s next year, and we’ll keep the hope and pray for that even more fervently this time, because it would mean that we’ve seen ourselves through the pandemic to a point of greater safety and security.”

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