Regional Community Building & The Blessing of Skype

Skype. Gchat. iPhone.

These are some of my primary tools in my modern Jewish education career.

Utilizing technology is important for pretty much all Jewish educators these days, but when you’re serving an entire region, they become more than enriching add-ons. They become absolute necessities.

I work as a virtual supervisor (not a term that was thrown around much back when I was in grad school at HUC!). That means that while I’m based in San Antonio Texas, the other ten people in my department are based out of the ISJL office in Jackson, Mississippi. When I first took on this role, I admit that I worried: what if my staff didn’t get what they needed from me.  Mentorship is so important, and I want to always be a good supervisor to my staff.

But then I recalled my previous professional settings where I had supervisors who were sitting just inches away, and yet remained completely unavailable to me.  I began realizing that meaningful connection isn’t just about physical presence, though that is important (and I do fly to Jackson quite frequently). It’s about mental presence. It’s about tuning in, and being responsive, and being accessible. Reachable, even if that means leaning pretty heavily on technology. Most of all, it’s about communication. And so that’s what I’ve committed to: being an always-mentally-present supervisor even when I wasn’t always physically present.

How Rachel Stern's staff sees her, most of the time: a friendly face on the Skype screen.

The way I work with my staff mirrors the way we work with our Southern communities, often quite far-flung, and ensure their positive Jewish experiences. My unconventional supervision succeeds because it fits with this model. My staff is constantly on the road, serving nearly 80 congregational schools.  We guide hundreds of teachers and reach thousands of students, from afar – but again, thanks to email and messaging and video conferences, we are always in touch.

Each community we serve receives a weekly email from their fellow.  We distribute a monthly e-newsletter from the department.  We are on daily calls, webinars and Skype sessions with our communities.  Most importantly, we see them three times a year, and we make every moment count.  When we aren’t teaching or leading a program, we are celebrating Shabbat with families at their dinner tables, we attend birthday parties for the children of the congregation, and we schmooze in the homes of our host families.

We have the privilege of becoming part of the community – and technology helps make it possible. Particularly in a region like the South, where there are more small Jewish communities than large ones, and often many miles separating these communities, anything that helps strengthen connections and communication between people is truly a blessing.

Hmm. Anyone know a good bracha for kicking off my next Skype session? ;-)

People worry that this age of technology is creating distance between people.  For us, it allows our impact and contact to be greater.  How do you use technology to connect to others?  We would love to hear your stories and comments.

 

 

Posted on August 27, 2012

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