After more than two months of social distancing measures, community organizations have learned a lot about hosting virtual events.
While Sixth & I synagogue in Washington D.C. misses physical events, “there’s still an incredible appetite for the kinds of thought-provoking events that audiences enjoyed in a pre-COVID-19 world,” said Michelle Eider, communications manager. Some effective programs for them are ones that help people add structure to their week like Shabbat services, havdallah, and morning mindfulness sessions.
“We’ve also seen that some of our most successful Zoom programs are the ones that speak to the anxieties and ethical questions surrounding this moment,” said Eider. For example, their class with Rabbi Aaron Potek and Washington Post writer Lisa Bonos on whether to date or not in a pandemic saw more than 250 attendees.
Just as the key to baking is careful preparation; so, too, with online events. Rianna Lloyd of Jews United for Justice first sits down to consider the goal. “What do we want the audience to come away with?” she asks. Then you can apply that to your planning.
“In person, we might encourage folks to engage in partner work, chevruta, and work through a text study, and then hold a broader discussion,” Lloyd said. JUFJ considers if they can incorporate something like breakout rooms, or maybe encourage attendees to write their thoughts in the chat.
When planning events, Baltimore Jewish Council considers different ways to change the format of the event.
“For smaller ones, we have found that an interactive conversation can work. For larger ones, we have focused on more of a broadcast format, encouraging program attendees
to either send in questions in advance or submit them during the program through the
written chat function,” said Howard Libit, who has tried various programs over the last 10 months with BJC.
The platform can also make a difference. While Zoom has become the standard, there are other options including Cisco Webex Meetings, GoToMeeting, Google Hangouts, BlueJeans, Join.me, or TeamViewer. Zoom works best for JUFJ because the platform allows the host to mute participants and turn off their videos, which helps with security.
“We normally have more than one staff or JUFJ leader serving as a host, so that we can also have someone monitor participants and chat,” said Lloyd. “Thankfully, we have not had any issues, but this would allow us to kick someone out if we needed to.”
Finally, planning the right time is essential.
“We have tried all different types of times,” said Libit, “and the type of program helps
dictate the best time of day. Our noontime lunch-and-learn sessions have proven to be very popular.”
To let people know about their events, JUFJ uses several avenues, “since we all receive our information differently,” Lloyd said. They use their website, email, and post on social media.
Sixth & I also uses free online event calendars and new platforms like JewishLIVE.
Co-hosting events can also help you reach a more diverse, larger audience.
When promoting the event, most organizations find that asking people to register helps. If there’s a large turnout, having an emcee can help direct the conversation and keep it structured.
Sixth & I does a dry run of its programs in advance of the real thing, whether it’s a sound check for a virtual concert, a test of Shabbat services, or a dress rehearsal for an author talk.
Most organizations have learned to be mindful of how long their online events run.
“People are looking at screens all day, and we don’t want them to struggle to be engaged because we are the fifth Zoom call they’ve had that day,” Lloyd said.
Ultimately, just breathe.
“Things can and will go wrong when it comes to technology, but audiences tend to be pretty forgiving in this new environment,” said Eider. “Now more than ever, people just want to connect with each other and connect with new ideas in whatever way they can.”