Gary Rosenblatt

Telling Israel’s Story To Millions

Heard of ‘Unpacked’? It’s the leading address for Jewish educational resources – from TikToks to documentaries – raising tough questions, offering multiple viewpoints and leaning in to complexity. 

Rabbi Harry Pell, a widely respected teacher of Israel studies, recalls seeing a report on Vox, the media website, about the Nakba that he found inaccurate and biased against Israel. He responded by alerting Noam Weissman, executive vice president of OpenDor Media, an educational resource whose brands include Unpacked, a division aimed at young people that creates videos, articles, podcasts, films and programs on all things Jewish.

“Within a few days,” Pell told me, “Unpacked produced a 10-minute video with Noam taking apart the Vox report piece by piece,” explaining how it omitted the Israeli side of the story of the 1948 war. “Remarkable.”

Conventional wisdom has it that the Jewish community is lacking in thoughtful, timely and creative ways to engage young American Jews about Israel, the Mideast conflict and antisemitism.

But conventional wisdom must not be familiar with Unpacked, which prides itself on “unpacking complex issues and questions about Israel, Jewish history and culture.”  Such efforts are more pressing than ever at a time when Israel faces an existential threat and antisemitism in the US has reached levels unimaginable before October 7.

Unpacked is leading the field.

In truth, there are a number of impressive projects and programs out there doing important work, especially in the arena of Israel advocacy. But Unpacked is unique in the depth and scope of its reach and content, providing factual, balanced and timely material on multiple levels – from 30-second TikToks and Instagrams to podcasts, YouTubes, and hundreds of films and videos with tens of millions of views.

Pell, associate head of school at The Leffell School in Westchester, New York, is familiar with, and makes use of, a number of educational offerings on Jewish topics. He says Unpacked has three elements that make it stand out above the others. “They are tech savvy and really understand how to use social media to meet particular audiences,” in this case “selling Israel and Jewish education to their target audience” of teenagers and young adults.

Second, “where much of Israel advocacy is not sufficiently nuanced,” Unpacked acknowledges that Israel “makes mistakes,” which Pell says is important because “a lot of young people are skeptical if you try to tell them otherwise.”

And third, Weissman and his team of dozens of young pros, are “fast and in the moment,” Pell notes, in producing timely responses to the news, particularly during the current war being waged with Hamas.

Two examples: A 10-minute video deals with “Why Israel Must Destroy Hamas,” asserting that a full war effort offers the only chance for any and all people in the region to live free of terror and destruction. A 15-minute video tackles “Does Israel Commit War Crimes?” and concludes that the answer is no since it is not the IDF’s intention to harm civilians.

According to OpenDor Media statistics, Unpacked has more than 220,000 subscribers, its YouTube channel has had more than 44 million views, its podcasts have had 1.5 million downloads, and social media views have surpassed 32 million views.

Another OpenDor platform, Unpacked for Educators, provides detailed lesson plans, discussion topics and some 300 videos to teachers, primarily for use with middle and high school students. Current offerings include videos and accompanying information on “From the River to the Sea Explained,” “Teaching with Israeli music post-October 7,” and “Preparing for the Yoms,” referring to Yom HaShoah, Yom HaZikaron and Yom Ha’Atzmaut.

More than 70 percent of all English-speaking, non-charedi Jewish day schools in the world – about 8,500 educators – use Unpacked for Educators material, according to program officials. Testimonials from Israel Studies teachers sing the praises of the program. Seth Korelitz of the Frankel Jewish Academy in Detroit noted that after more than 20 years in the field, he believes Unpacked material is “the most helpful tool I’ve seen.” Neil Rubin of the Beth Tfiloh Dahan High School in Baltimore says the “History of Israel Explained” video series “has become a staple of our 12th grade, year-long Israel seminar.” And Rabbi Eddie Shostak of the Hebrew Academy in Montreal credits Unpacked as “the cutting edge of Jewish education, firing on all cylinders and one step ahead of the game at all times.”

Reaching Young People On Their Phones

Most Unpacked content is aimed at a much wider audience, targeting young people here and around the world whose main source of information is likely to be TikTok, Instagram or YouTube.

The video presentations are very slick, featuring fast-talking narrators describing visual images that fly by so fast that only teens are likely to absorb them fully. But that’s exactly the point, explains OpenDor Media’s Weissman.

“This is how you reach young people, where they are – they’re on their phones,” he told me. (Statistics say teens are on their phones about nine hours a day.) In addition to overseeing content and education for OpenDor Media, he hosts the most downloaded of all Jewish podcasts, “Unpacking Israeli History,” a series of 70 (-and-counting) episodes, from the Dreyfus Affair in 1890s France to moral dilemmas presented by the current war with Hamas.

Weissman narrates the 40-50 minute segments with passion, interspersing rapid-fire facts and humorous asides in his telling of complex stories with clarity, and not afraid to point out Israeli mistakes at times.

“You can listen (to the podcasts) if you’re older than 45, that’s great,” he says. “But I’m not talking to you. I’m talking to an audience” – targeted at 18 to 34, primarily – “that wants to be entertained and to be educated – and doesn’t take itself too seriously.”

Weissman takes pride in pointing out that “we ask the tough questions,” asserting that “the goal is for Jews to know their history, and for other people to know the Jewish story. That’s my job. Not diplomacy for Israel.”

A Change Of Name And Direction

OpenDor Media is an outgrowth of Jerusalem U, an educational media company with a global agenda, founded in 2009 by Rabbi Raphael Shore and best known for producing full-length documentary films like “Beneath The Helmet,” following five Israeli high school graduates from different backgrounds as they begin their army service, and “Obsession: Radical Islam’s War Against the West.”

In 2020, the organization changed its name to OpenDor Media to reflect its emphasis on its various digital platforms and its impact on the next generation. (“Dor” is “generation” in Hebrew.) Shore stayed on as executive chairman, and Andrew Savage, a native of London with a long list of educational initiatives he has helped lead, including most recently The Tikvah Fund, was named CEO in 2021.

He said he was drawn to OpenDor because it offers intellectual content “that is entertaining and compelling without proselytizing,” and is able to reach millions of people every day.

Staffing, budget and content are expanding, according to Gerald Ostrov, a retired social media expert who founded and was CEO of “reThink Israel Initiative,” a non-profit that used social media to change negative perceptions of Israel. The former chair and CEO of Baush and Lomb joined forces with OpenDor several years ago and is a member of its board of directors.

He noted that there are 50 staff members of OpenDor in the US and Israel, with the annual budget approaching $10 million, much of it coming from dozens of major Jewish foundations and Federations.

This year OpenDor is engaged for the first time in translating a number of its videos into French, Spanish and Arabic, and in providing content for elementary school students.

It also plans to gradually expand a platform, Amplified, that was launched a few months ago. Its goal is to identify and magnify the voices of a wide range of individuals who are already presenting compelling Jewish content on their platforms. OpenDor is working now with about 36 individuals, offering them access to producers, writers, designers and other industry experts to help them increase their audience and impact – and to grow a community of young talent.

“We’re not looking to guide these voices,” Savage explained, “but to support them and encourage them to collaborate with each other.”

Yirmiyahu Danzig, an American-born Israeli who served in counter terror in the IDF, came to OpenDor in a similar fashion in 2022. He was hired after his social media efforts, in English, Hebrew and Arabic, on Israel-Palestinian relationships – “often dealing with painful topics” – drew the attention of OpenDor.

“They said ‘we’re doing what you’re doing,’” Danzig recalled, and his duties now include digital education, content creation and hosting a number of the Unpacked videos.

“Different audiences, different languages, but basically, I try to present the story of the Jewish people by embracing complexity, searching for empathy and seeing humanity in the other.”

That’s the formula associated most with Noam Weissman, widely praised as OpenDor’s most skilled communicator and most visible presenter.

‘I Know How To Connect People To Israel’

A Baltimore native, Weissman, 38, is a graduate of Yeshiva University and earned his doctorate degree in Educational Psychology from the University of Southern California.

He has a playful manner in an interview that turns more serious when he talks about how to approach a wide range of audiences, not just Jewish ones, a specialty of his in his career. “I know how to connect people to Israel,” he says.

One of his many roles of late is scholar-in-residence for faculty and students at the Horace Mann School, an elite private school in the Bronx. Approached by the administration to help deal with issues about antisemitism and Israel, Weissman recently spoke to 800 students on the topic of social media and Israel, and returns to the campus for smaller sessions on a regular basis.

Citing solid educational principles, he said he promotes the notion of having “courageous conversations” by emphasizing curiosity, humility and respect, “being able to have passion for my views without giving up empathy for others.”

He believes that some Jewish organizations have “a surplus of advocacy and a deficit of curiosity.”

Too many Jewish day school students are stumped when asked to define or explain Zionism, Weissman said, citing one study that found 65 percent of a group of middle school students said they don’t know. “That tells you everything,” he said, adding that the answers of most of the others “were off base.”

“How can we look at ourselves in the mirror and ask our young people to represent Zionism when they do not know what Zionism is?” he wrote in an essay, “(Israel) Educators,” in the current issue of Sapir: Ideas for a Thriving Jewish Future.

Weissman suggests that Israel educators should focus on three areas: Curiosity, by “incorporating surprise and incongruity into the learning experience” to spark interest; Content: he calls for an expenditure of $20 million in philanthropic funds to harness media technology – YouTube, TikTok, podcasts, videos, etc. – and create a kind of “Birthright Israel Education” …  “to teach every young Jew in America”; and Courage, the willingness to “confront the difficult elements – intellectual, spiritual and experiential – of the ongoing project that is the Jewish state.”

The challenges are great, especially today when Israel is blamed around the world for a war it didn’t start, social media churns out hateful content, and increasing numbers of young Jews feel their liberalism trumps a Zionism they know little of. But OpenDor has carved a path for engaging a generation looking for value and meaning by offering content that seeks to “educate, motivate and inspire in a language young people can relate to,” Weissman says.

American Jewry’s communal future may depend on it.

About the Author
Gary Rosenblatt is the former editor and publisher of The Jewish Week of New York. Follow him at
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