When 2020 began, the Jewish Federation was planning their events just like everyone else. They had many events they and community members were looking forward to. And then, COVID happened. They wondered: “What will happen? How will we proceed?” Nothing like this had ever happened before; how would they handle it? The leadership agonized over whether they should postpone or cancel upcoming events like the Jewish Food Festival or the Annual Women’s Forum. However, while they were discussing this, other festivals across the country started to be canceled left and right. Festivals like South by Southwest in Austin, and hearing of these cancellations made their decisions a little bit easier.
Executive Director Jason Moss said: “We were a bit apprehensive, thinking maybe we were jumping the gun, but at the same time, we did not want to jeopardize people’s lives or make them feel uncomfortable.” Each event needed multiple plans; if it were virtual then it needed a different plan than if it would have taken place in person. There were some starts and stops, but their main issue was safety. The year started off very strong, but the organization had no choice but to change and adapt.
In April, as the pandemic continued to grow and summer camps began to cancel their programs, Moss and Camp Gan Shalom’s new director Benjamin Phelps, began thinking that the camp program would need to change if the Jewish Federation would be able to provide some sort of summer camp experience for the community’s youth. “We kept waiting for the CDC to come out with their guidelines so we could figure out how to run the type of camp program we are known for,” Moss explained. Sadly, there was no feasible way. In the end, Phelps and his camp staff created Gan Shalom @ Home, a virtual summer camp program, that helped provide its campers a way to engage with other Jewish youth during the summer.
Moss proudly said: “One of the things I am most proud of in 2020 is the fact that although all of our community’s synagogues, schools, and organizations had to keep their doors closed, our community was wide open because everyone adapted to the situation we all were facing. The amount of programming that was taking place virtually was incredible.”
As people began to develop Zoom “fatigue” and were getting overwhelmed by the number of options, the Jewish Federation made a conscious choice to not put out more programs, instead deciding to curate content and share it with the community. Its goal was to try and keep the community feeling connected. Moss started to write a weekly column “in order to keep everyone’s spirits up.” Synagogues had virtual services and attendance and participation was at an all-time high. The reason? “People looked to connect and hold on to something.” The Jewish Federation provided outlets that the community needed. And when it held its Jewish Book Festival at the end of the year, it experienced the highest number of attendees that it ever had. Moss happily shared: “It’s been meaningful, and we are so proud how we connected to the community.”
Some events to look back at are:
1. Every Person Has a Name – This powerful and memorable 25-hour experience kicked off 2020 and saw more than 150 community volunteers read the names of over 7,000 Jews who were murdered during the Holocaust. The event also featured a special exhibition provided by Yad Vashem. This event will take place virtually this year (www.facebook.com/jewishsgpv) beginning on Saturday, January 23 at 7:00 pm and running through Sunday, January 24 at 8:00 pm.
2. The Jewish Federation partnered with the Pasadena Jewish Temple & Center Youth Program, to perform the Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. This production brought together over 40 people to sing, dance and act in this virtual production. Moss says that this particular event has been challenging and taken a lot longer to complete since they needed to learn how to manipulate technology in order “to give that professional look and experience.” The production will premiere on January 17.
3. Virtual Town Hall Meeting with the Consul General of Israel – This meeting provided the community an opportunity to hear from Consul General Dr. Hillel Newman, Israel’s leading diplomat in Southern California. Attendees were provided insight and perspective on everything from the Abrahamic Accords, the 2020 Election, Iran and COVID to the rise of antisemitism and Israeli’s perspective on the American Jewish community,
4. Jewish Book Festival – This year’s Jewish Book Festival stepped up to the challenges of the pandemic by going virtual. “We were determined not to cancel if we could help it,” says program coordinator Kim Banaji. “Events that can bring us together are more important than ever. There were so many great authors at the Jewish Book Council this year and we didn’t want our community to miss out.” Although it required more coordination than usual, she says, the community has really responded. “More volunteers helped us review books this summer, so we were able to get a lot of our first choices. The Literary Circle increased its contribution and helped us acquire the technical support we needed. Most importantly, community participation has been high for each event. And the authors themselves have been wonderful.”
5. PJ Library Programs – Although physical interaction with people is ideal, especially for children, PJ Library’s programs allowed families to still be able to interact, albeit virtually. They provided some of that “community feeling” with programs such as the End-of-the Summer Family Concert with the very high energy of Jason Mesches, a Jewish entertainer who has performed in the community on two other occasions. Approximately 40 families joined its Sunday afternoon Zoom concert on August 30, and “the joy and enthusiasm was palpable even through the screens that lit up their faces. In addition, we launched some family challenges that helped keep the community connected.” These family challenges and celebrations continued through Hanukkah.
In order to learn more about the Jewish Federation and see all it has to offer, visit: www.jewishsgpv.org.
RACHEL STERN is a contributing writer to Jlife Magazine.