Thursday, April 12, 2012

#12NTCJews Talk Networks and Nonprofits

This post is cross-posted on Darim's blog JewPoint0 here!

I must admit that I don’t go to very many conferences that aren’t “Jewish.” But last week I was excited to attend the Nonprofit Technology Conference of NTEN (#12NTC). I went to speak at a session in collaboration with the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Foundation, Jim Joseph Foundation, and Darim Online, on networks, technology, and their application to non-profits – and yes, we were speaking about it particularly in a Jewish context. The truth is, with the attendance of over 70 non-profit professionals who are Jewish and/or working for Jewish nonprofits, this session and the social hour that followed had as much as or even more of the usual dose of Jewish geography, schmoozing/networking, and certainly the spirit of Jewish pride.

Why Jewish pride? The focus on how Jewish organizations are making an impact in this realm was impressive to many – especially those who don’t usually equate Jewish organizations as being at or even near the forefront of the technological cutting-edge. I give a lot of credit to the session sponsors, in particular Lisa Colton, the session facilitator, for recognizing the need to demonstrate how Jewish organizations are thinking about technology and networks, even fostering that energy beyond the session by using the hashtag #12ntcJews for the conference’s duration.

I don’t mean to say that the session insinuated that Jewish non-profits have all the answers when it comes to technology and networks. On the contrary, the timbre was very much expressing how we are all on a journey as we struggle with the issues 21st-century ways of communication pose to how we think and how we work. Actually, that was exactly what was so impressive – because in today’s interconnected, networked world, it’s not about the one-sided execution of perfection, but rather about engaging in a dialogue, asking the right questions, and reacting to that dialogue through constant experimentation. That sense of authenticity and candor about our work is so important to everything technology and networks represent.

The value placed on dialogue was evident in the diverse voices of the panel, featuring Josh Miller, Miriam Brosseau, David Cygielman, Lisa Colton and myself. The opportunity to learn from and share a podium with Jewish professionals making an impact in the realm of working in a networked way – as well as to hear comments and reactions from the audience members also engaging with these issues – was truly amazing. It sparked in me the sense that Jewish organizations have a lot to learn, not only from the scintillating conference attendees and presenters in nonprofit technology that surrounded us at NTC, but also specifically from each other. There are unique challenges and opportunities to working within the Jewish community, and we all are better positioned to take them on when we work together.

As part of my talk, I spoke about the need for a training program and community of practice for Jewish network-weavers, those in Jewish organizations working with networks to engage constituencies and foster connections and the sharing of resources and ideas between them. I believe this is very much needed in the Jewish world, especially as so many of us are already are on journeys to implement networked practice in our work.

Exemplifying these journeys, Miriam Brosseau and I spoke about our work with The Jewish Education Project and The AVI CHAI Foundation, respectively – both established organizations that are pivoting and really transforming themselves for the digital age. Miriam talked about how The Jewish Education Project is seeking not only to work with networks externally, but how they have realized that in order to do so they must also operate in a networked way internally, and they have created a community of practice to address this. She even brought in a Jewish concept – the idea of tocho k’varo, that just as the mishkan was required to be gold inside as well as outside, so too should we be the same internally and externally in order to be truly whole and authentic.

I spoke about AVI CHAI’s “communications revolution,” from top-down, one-way communication about our work to understanding that, in order for AVI CHAI to leave a legacy on the issues we care about, we must create dialogue and engage others in these issues. We are doing this through initiatives like ELI talks: Inspired Jewish Ideas ss well as grassroots brainstorms to generate creative ideas as to what would make day schools a more attractive option for parents not previously considering it.

In addition, Josh Miller from the Jim Joseph Foundation spoke about the foundation’s forays in working with networks, such as its investments in and lessons learned from the Jewish New Media Innovation Fund. David Cygielman from Moishe House exemplified an emerging organization that started from the beginning as a grassroots effort and continues to work in a networked way. Interestingly, being “native” to this mode of operation has not freed it entirely from network dilemmas. These have included how to incorporate technology as it scales and how to navigate the need to maintain a consistent level of Jewish educational content in its programming while remaining powered by grassroots needs and interests.

All of this, by the way, happened in my 12 hours in San Francisco. Why just 12 hours? It was actually a lot to spare on the day that my husband moved my family to a new apartment in a new city and two days before Pesach, over which we hosted two seders there. Why did I go at all? That’s just how passionate I am about this topic of networks, Jewish organizations, and technology. I am excited to be a part and witness the development of the emerging field of Jewish networks, and know it will lead us to be ever more effective and connected in the future.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Amihai Bannett

Amihai Bannett is Educational Director of Israel Connect (, a Melitz program dedicated to developing and facilitating a two-way, long-term and interpersonal connection between Jewish youth from around the world and their peers in Israel in order to enhance their Jewish identity and commitment to the Jewish people. He is also a proud Wikipedian. He lives with his family in Beit Shemesh, Israel.

Tell me about your network.

We work to build a network of Jewish schools, educators and students around the world. I prefer using the word “connection” – we create direct connections between schools, resulting in many small networks of students and teachers in one school with students and teachers in their partner school. The big network is that of all the schools together. We’re currently working with 25 schools in Israel and 25 schools around the world – a quarter in the Former Soviet Union, half in North America, and the rest in South America, Australia and Europe.

How does utilizing this network help you in your work?

I do my job better because I do it with so many schools. I collect ideas from everyone, run ideas by everyone, and see what works and what doesn’t. Because of that, I can suggest what’s been successful, or say that I don’t think an idea is going to work because of the network experience I’ve had in other places. Some educators ask me: “Why couldn’t we just set up this connection ourselves?” The answer is that anyone can do it by themselves, but when you’re connected to a network, you get a better result.

How would you like to see Israel Connect grow in the future?

While technology allows us to carry the whole world in our pocket, the best kind of relationship is when it is done face to face. I want to seek resources to run a yearly conference where teachers can meet face to face – by bringing everyone to the same place and with portions open to participation online. Teachers would be able to see that they’re not alone. These teachers are engaged in this work because they’re passionate about it – and this way they would be able to connect and network with like-minded colleagues. Since there are differences in language and other points of reference between different areas of the world, we could even have mini-conferences so teachers could learn more from their direct peers. I would love to implement regional directors/network-weavers to foster mini-networks within the network. Finally, I’d like to build an Internet platform where everyone can connect and share ideas.

As a Wikipedian, I believe in open and free content. Everyone would share their lesson plans and ideas. I want to bring all of the people who are connecting Jews to each other to be under one roof.

How did you start out in building this network?

Six and a half years ago, I came back to Israel from being a day school Principal in Winnipeg. I taught in a Beit Shemesh school for a year. But from my time abroad, I was bitten by the idea of creating connections with Jews abroad. There was an ad in the newspaper looking for an Educator with knowledge in technology and familiar with schools around the world and in Israel, through AMIT, and I answered it. I then started running it on own, and in 2009 joined Melitz.

In terms of building the network, we did an initial tour in North America, but now schools around the world find us. We are active on social media (@israelconnect on Twitter and Facebook) and have a website.

Many schools in Israel are now in a Ministry of Education program to adapt the educational system for the 21st century. This program provides equipment for educational use, on the condition that the Israeli schools connect to a school outside of Israel. I also build a lot off of my personal network – through my personal connections, it becomes much easier to make new connections. So in some ways, you need a network to build a network.

What technology do you use for communication and collaboration in your network?

We use online collaboration and learning tools, such as Wikis, online forums and facebook groups. We’re also working on Moodle, an educational tool. For video conferences, we use Skype or high-end video conferencing equipment when we have more people involved.

How does your network promote Jewish peoplehood?

I see Jewish peoplehood as anything that connects Jews to Jews – that is its practical application for me. It could happen through schools and also through other platforms where Jews come together such as youth movements, March of the Living, Hillel, post-high school organizations, Jewish Federations, and so on. In fact, a lot of organizations share the same ideals we do, but it’s hard for them to do it all by themselves, so they come to us and hire us to help them achieve their goals.

One of the bigger challenges we’re facing is connecting the Jews in Israel with the Jewish people around the world. The Israelis don’t have the Jewish World in their frame of reference. The same can be said about Jews around the world’s connection with their peers in Israel. Everyone agrees that Jews everywhere should be connected to Israel, but I believe that the best kind of connection is a connection with the people and not only to the land of Israel. That’s one of the greater needs we’re filling: helping Jews around the world be in touch with Israelis and helping Israelis realize they should be in touch with Jews around the world.

Why is educational content necessary in the networking work you do?

A connection is more meaningful when it has content. If we’re friends on facebook but don’t talk about serious content, it won’t be as meaningful as if we do.

There are so many teachable moments when we have the kinds of global connections that Israel Connect creates. The by-product of these connections is in fact education. Of course we also talk about lighter things, because it gives a personal connection. But when we talk about – Why am I Jewish? What’s my connection to Israel? How do I celebrate Chanukah or Purim? – the connection becomes more meaningful.