After Zoom?

Friday, May 8, 2020 | 29th day of the omer – chesed she’b’hod

Dear All,

Lots of people aren’t on Zoom. Subway workers, farmers and food distributors, the police and the armed forces and the fire brigade, everyone in a hospital, people cleaning the streets – all these people are not on Zoom, and many more.

But some of us are on Zoom a lot these days. The benefits are significant. Being able to see and talk with friends and family in different places. Zoom seders. At a different scale, our #SoundTheCall event had 32 presenters in 28 different locations, not to mention more than 1,500 people watching it. We couldn’t have done these things without Zoom. As a society, we had no idea how relatively easily our offices could migrate online. The consequences of this on where people live and how they work will have enormous ramifications in the next decade.

For Hazon, just one small but significant example. We did a consequential Shmita Summit in London in April 2014, and were planning something similar this winter. Now, instead, we’re doing a Shmita Summit next month, online, likely the first of several. The cost of doing it online will be way lower both in dollars and in carbon. It is much less likely we will do one again in person. There is genuine loss in not meeting in person, and that is sad in all sorts of ways. But the cost/reward trade-off is significant.

So the Jewish community is galloping online. All sorts of events, major and minor, are moving online. Our post-Covid world will not simply default to pre-Covid forms of gathering.

But this is only half the story. Because I, like many of us, am Zoomed out.
Exhausted by these meetings. Their weird rhythms and evolving customs. The chat box on the side. Whether people are on video or not. Whether they’re really present or not. Whether I am really present or not. And that particular moment in a day when one is just exhausted; and Zoom is part of that.

And that’s just adults. What about kids, especially younger ones? I have enormous compassion for parents at home, especially single parents, or parents who have several kids, or any number of configurations in which the only realistic option is screen time, to engage the kids and allow some respite for the adults. I don’t have an ounce of criticism for anyone. On the contrary. All of this is hard enough. Go gently on yourself. Don’t stress. It will be ok.

But as a society, this screen time is bad for us. It fries our brains. It hypes us, distracts us, tires us and crashes us. It messes with our neurons and wires our brains in unfortunate ways. Many of you will have read Richard Louv’s Last Child In The Woods, which introduced the phrase “nature deficit disorder.” Well: whatever nature deficit disorder we had in 2008 just zoomed itself to a whole new level in 2020.

So we need an après-Zoom strategy. 
Just as we are galloping online: we must give equivalent thought and attention to how we get ourselves outdoors. 

There has been an intense conversation in the Jewish community about summer camps, but this should not be the only focus of our attention. We must devote time, thought, and money towards year-round outdoor education. It is not less important after all this, it is more important. 

Of the few dedicated Jewish retreat centers we have, Isabella Freedman is presently closed, Pearlstone Center is presently closed, and the ability to celebrate the chagim (holidays) outdoors, to integrate natural rhythms and Jewish rhythms, to come together multi-generationally and not just uni-generationally; as a community we need this, and we do not sufficiently value it.

The need to prioritize being outdoors runs counter to much energy that is now underway. Shuls worry about membership renewals if high holiday services go online. Foundations will look at market returns in ’20 and additional emergency payments and will conclude that in ’21 or ’22 they need to rein back their payout ratios. Dayschools care about Teva, and many of them truly love Teva, but in a year when they’re worried about losing kids and losing tuition – is Teva a necessity or a luxury? Jewish outdoor education, Jewish environmental education, Jewish food education, Jewish farm education – we need these things, and yet, relative to strong legacy organizations like ADL or AIPAC or JNF, the enterprises that deliver and produce these programs are highly fragile.

In previous crises we have tended to define as core, that which we are used to doing; and to define as an added luxury, and one we can’t now afford, recent innovations in Jewish life. It was a mistake in the past and it will be a mistake now.

This is why institutions – now! – even as they (as you) make plans to go online, need also to create equal and opposite plans to get outdoors, and to do so, wherever possible, in community, in relationship, and in an explicitly Jewish context. Any funder who is thinking about – and investing in – program migrations online, should also be thinking about equivalent investments in how we come together, away from screens, in the future.

And I note in closing that tomorrow morning’s sidra is where counting the omer comes from. We learn about the chagim and about grain offerings. We started life as an agrarian people. The small mixed use farmers, growing local food – those are our people, that’s where we came from.

Today, the 29th day of the omer, is the beginning of the week of hod, of simplicity and beauty. Hod is the world of waterfalls and crags, the sun rising on a cold day, vegetables growing in a field, wild berries, the Galil in springtime, hiking to the overlook at Isabella Freedman, and so so so much more.

And counting the omer is the journey from “freedom from” to “freedom to.” Freedom from, in this context, includes freedom from the fear of death from this plague; the fear of hospitals overburdened, frontline staff without PPE, people dying in nursing homes, and on and on. We must strive, indeed, to become free from all this. As Shuli Karkowsky, Hazon’s EVP, pointed out to me, this is the base of the Maslovian pyramid, and without this we can’t aspire to the higher freedoms.

But those, nevertheless, are the ones we journey towards, the ones we count upwards to. We want to be free to make healthy choices. We want to be free to choose the physical and not just the virtual, a touch and a hug, dancing together, rejoicing at a wedding; not just reading about Shavuot as the festival of the first fruits, but seeing those fruits and their gathering ourselves. Shavuot is zman matan torateinu, the time of the giving of the Torah. The rabbis understood that the significance of that phrase is that the Torah is given, but it is up to us to choose what it is we want to receive. This involves thought, preparation, active involvement, hierarchies of decision, money, conversation – all the things that make freedom so hard.

So as you go towards Shavuot, personally and professionally, as you plan for the summer and fall and beyond – go outdoors. Walk in Central Park and Prospect Park, walk in Tilden, walk in the Galil and in the Machtesh and in the Arava,  go out to the country, go the beach. Do so both joyously and planfully. Go outside by yourself, and with family and friends, and as a community. Do so for the sheer heck of it, and do so also to learn, to daven (pray), and to transmit knowledge and love to the next generation. This is – this should be – a core commitment of human life, not an optional extra.

Shabbat shalom,




PS  please feel free to send this to your rabbi, or the board or leadership of your synagogue or school. We must engender this conversation now – even amidst crisis, even with limited budgets, even with an unclear future.

PPS: and in other news, and despite all of the above – virtually! – please join me for After The Plague, this Sunday, May 10th at noon, ET with Rabbi Phyllis Berman and Rabbi Dr. Arthur Waskow, and next Sunday, May 17th,  at noon with the former SEIU head, Andy Stern.

PPPS: And speaking of being outdoors: as of now, we’re still planning to proceed with this autumn’s Arava Institute Hazon Israel Ride. Go to the website to check it out and email if you have any questions.