Unorthodox zoom

"Unorthodox" actress Michal Birnbaum discusses the Netflix series on a Zoom call hosted by the EVJCC.

After more than two months of social distancing measures, community organizations have learned a lot about hosting virtual events.

“The lesson learned is that virtual programming is probably here to stay in some capacity moving forward, even when we can gather together for programming,” said Nicole Garber, adult program director at the Martin Pear JCC. “I think that it’s been a great way to stay connected in the community, and we just keep trying to find new, innovative ways to get people together.”

The key to a successful online event, Garber said, is “making it something either fun or interesting.” At the MPJCC, that includes game-focused events like a brain games class, virtual bingo and weekly Mahjong games online.

For Rabbi Michael Beyo, CEO of the East Valley JCC, an event on Zoom or a livestream shouldn’t feel like a virtual event. The goal should be to try to mimic the experience of being at an in-person event and to make a real connection between participants.

“A lot of what we do is just to let our community know we are here for you,” Beyo said. In terms of keeping people engaged, “it’s important to find something different, something that stands out from what other organizations in your area are doing. And it’s important if the event … allows people to interact.”

Garber agreed that an interactive element is essential.

“The games aspect has been successful because people are active on Zoom. I know for myself, I’ve gone on for a talk before and it’s so easy to do something else while you’re doing it, because you can kind of tune in and tune out when you want to,” Garber said. “So I think it’s just finding a way to keep people actively engaged, whether it’s asking questions or something else. It’s something I’m still figuring out from time to time.”

She learned early on that open-ended meetings and social events were more difficult for participants to engage with than something more structured.

“Just having people get on to be social didn’t work,” Garber said. “Having a conversation on Zoom is difficult, so it definitely had to be something that was more structured and focused rather than just ‘let’s all get on and check in,’ which I think was how we started. And we’ve definitely evolved since then.”

When it comes down to what exactly makes an event successful, Beyo said that impact, not attendance, is what really matters.

“My personal opinion is it’s not important the number of people that participate in the program, but what is the impact of the program?” Beyo said.

Out of 20 students in Beyo’s weekly class, “The History of Our Prayers,” three sent him emails to thank him for the lesson and to tell him how helpful and inspiring it was.

“That’s 15% that are actively doing something post class to let me know that they enjoyed the class. That’s a huge success,” Beyo said. “I say small steps, small mistakes, big impacts — these are what we’re looking for. I don’t care whether we do an event for thousands of people. Where was the impact?”

But after three months, people are starting to get tired of connecting over virtual platforms.

“I think there is part of us that are a little Zoomed out,” Garber said.

And the problem isn’t just fatigue, Beyo said: It’s also the sheer number of events that are available now.

“There is so much out there, not only local but national and international, that the market is really saturated,” Beyo said. “In order for people to take the time and go online and do some Zoom or something else rather than binge watch a Netflix show, it’s important that they had a commitment to your organization before. It’s going to be difficult to find many more new people to watch Zoom if they did not know you before.”

But overall, the need for virtual events is pushing community organizations to get creative — and that’s a good thing.

“It’s a good opportunity now for organizations to look for new ways and try new things and also to try new partnerships,” Beyo said. “I think that it’s a good time to try new things.” JN

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