In a reality where ‘virtual’ is the new norm, is there a place for NCSY Israel — a teen organization based on in-person events and social relationships?
The emergence of COVID-19 has transformed the lives of individuals, families and communities around the globe. Here in Israel, what started as a recommendation from the government to stay home has become an enforced regulation. Employees have moved to working remotely. Schools have shifted to online classes. Places of culture, casual shopping and entertainment have closed their doors. These changes have affected every demographic spanning religion, nationality, and age, presenting each with its unique set of challenges. But it is clear that “social distancing” has caused exactly that: a feeling of distance from routine social life. Such a life lacking social interaction is a recipe for loneliness.
Loneliness is not a new term for the teens of NCSY Israel, the only youth movement specifically dedicated to addressing the needs of Anglo teen olim. NCSY Israel creates a social haven for teens who are new to the country, introducing them to friends experiencing similar challenges and advisors to help guide them. All this while inspiring teens to think and connect more deeply to their Jewish identity. For a teenage oleh transitioning to a new school and learning a new language and culture, the feelings of quarantine and isolation are indeed not new.
When the Health Ministry in Israel declared that gatherings must be limited to no more than 10 people, it was unclear how NCSY Israel would proceed. The model to help these teen olim for the past five years has been through social interactions and gatherings. The day after this restriction was enacted, a serious question arose as to whether we could continue supporting our teens given the current situation. Maybe moving to a virtual model would not engage our teens effectively? Maybe the teens were already too overburdened with other Zoom video calls? Maybe Zoom calls would not serve to accomplish this vision of social networking? We held an impromptu conference call with our board, and with their support and encouragement, we embarked on a new virtual programming model.
The programming staff at NCSY Israel worked diligently to create innovative events which could be run virtually, not knowing if they would be successful. The ‘Latte & Learning’ discussions moved online together with trivia games, cooking demos, and a virtual Thursday night kumzitz to prepare for Shabbat through song. And teens tuned in. I recently spoke with a teen who explained what makes our events so necessary. This was a teen who in his first year of Aliyah was planning to return to his native country because of difficulties in his Israeli school environment. Yet NCSY Israel’s social network of relatable teen olim helped guide his decision to stay. This was also a teen who then found his place in Israel, and became involved in many other organizations in addition to NCSY. In fact, I barely had a chance to speak with him, because after our NCSY Israel event he had one or two more virtual events that night. I was a little nervous to ask him what, if anything, has made NCSY Israel’s virtual events unique compared to other organizations’ virtual programming models. His response? That our events at NCSY Israel are different because they are interactive. They promote the social network which is at the core of NCSY Israel. Many other organizations have arranged online Jewish classes and learning, but at NCSY we are committed to personal relationships.
And so, we will continue our virtual programming model as long as is necessary. We will continue to provide the social interactions and the strong relationships that anchor us at our core. We will continue to serve our teens even during these challenging times and especially during these challenging times. And we eagerly await returning to our face-to-face events, greeting our teens with smiles that will be even brighter and warmer without the screen in between.