From Program Associate… to Counter Programming

A Southern Jewish Story

When you have a crazy idea, who ya gonna call? Ghostbusters!

Just kidding. Of course, as anyone familiar with the ISJL knows, you call an ISJL Program Associate – AKA the young professionals once called ISJL Fellows. That’s what I do, too, as a former ISJL Program Associate myself… and that’s how a special podcast called Counter Programming with Shira & Arielle was born. 

Let me rewind. In February of 2015, I arrived in Jackson, Mississippi, for my interview to become what was then called an “ISJL Education Fellow” at the Goldring/Woldenberg Institute of Southern Jewish Life (ISJL). During that trip, I met a woman named Arielle, who was already serving as a Fellow. I knew instantly that we would be friends. After accepting the fellowship and moving down to Jackson, Arielle and I quickly bonded over our New York roots and our desire to make every workday fun with games and ridiculous antics. 

After our adventures in the Deep South, life took us in two different directions. Arielle moved to Los Angeles, and I returned to New York. Arielle launched a career in podcasting, managing a podcast studio, curating a podcast newsletter (EarBuds Podcast Collective), and overseeing marketing at various podcast companies. I began working in Customer Success. Despite the distance, we remained close friends. After all, it’s hard to explain to others the unique experience of working at the ISJL, traveling across the South, leading programs like Pirate Tot Shabbat, Pokemon Go Scavenger Hunt, and Cupcake Commentaries. 

Fast forward to March 2020. The COVID-19 pandemic was in full swing, and New York City and Los Angeles were being hit hard. Arielle and I were both anxious, as there was so much uncertainty swirling around us. As avid podcast listeners, we were overwhelmed. All of the podcasts we usually listened to were stressing us out. Every show was centered around the novel Coronavirus and while we wanted to learn more about it, we were also living in the epicenter(s) of the pandemic, and being on lockdown had become a part of everyday life. 

And that’s when Arielle called me with an idea that only a former ISJL Program Associate could have: What if we started a podcast to provide Counter Programming to all the grim COVID-19 news? But there’s a twist, she explained, each week we’ll cover a different “counter topic” like countertops, step counters, and Count Dracula. The idea sounded crazy but I did what any former ISJL’er would do when presented with an idea like this… I said “I’m in!” 

Today, we have released over 40 episodes on counter topics. We’ve covered countertops, step counters, and Count Dracula like we initially planned, but as the pandemic raged on, we had to get creative. We did an episode on Countertenors (which was one of our favorites because we interviewed Aryeh Nussbaum-Cohen, a Jewish countertenor), counting sheep, disCOUNTs, and so much more. As the election drew near, we found ways to connect our episodes to politics with topics such as People Counters (aka the census), How Votes are Counted, and my favorite, Local Elections Count (which featured an interview with my camp friend from URJ Eisner Camp who ran for City Council, Jesse Cerrotti). 

Although we couldn’t have predicted this back in 2015 (afterall, these are unprecedented times), our experience at the ISJL prepared us for Counter Programming. At the ISJL, we learned to be creative. Congregations frequently asked us for out-of-the-box programs and each visit, we brought those programs to life. I loved how much collaboration was required of us. Each week, at our Tuesday morning Education team meetings, we brainstormed creative ways to execute new programs. Collaboration has been a huge part of Counter Programming’s success, we’re a team through and through. At the ISJL we constantly had the opportunity to practice our public speaking… and let me tell you, there’s a lot of speaking that goes into creating our podcast. It was also on our long car rides to visit ISJL communities that we found our favorite form of media – the podcast, obviously! – and our lives haven’t been the same since, clearly. 

So thank you, ISJL, for bringing us together, connecting us with big ideas, launching so many creative endeavors… now, we hope our podcast does the same thing for our listeners.

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