Anyone who says “If you can’t do, teach,” hasn’t tried teaching. Education is an arduous undertaking that leaves little leeway for error. Whereas a failure in the business world costs money, one in the field of education costs futures.
As we are all aware, the global pandemic that is the coronavirus has nearly stopped education in its tracks. Schools and youth groups shut down with almost no notice, and administrators were left stunned with little in the way of contingency for such an extraordinary turn of events. Zoom and other web-based programs have provided some relief, but legal issues surrounding data protection and threats of “Zoombombs” have proved tough to navigate. Naturally, many institutions have struggled tremendously through the pandemic; some have even collapsed as a result. There are, however, some educational movements that have quickly turned a catastrophe into a success.
I work for the New York branch of a company called NCSY. We are the youth movement of the Orthodox Union. Many thousands of teenagers from across the world are affiliated with the organization, well renowned for its warmth, focus on growth and upbeat atmosphere. Social scenes are our forte and personal relationships, our expertise. As the shutdown gained momentum we had to look for different avenues of approach. And fast. How do you create a social atmosphere when people are not allowed in the same room? And how do you maintain a close community when kept so far apart?
Zoom gatherings began at a fast and furious pace, with teens tuning in at regular time slots to see the friends they used to see each week, except this time through video. Momentum, much like the stock market, took a downward turn. People were quick to notice that virtual friends were not nearly as appealing as the real thing, and a decline in numbers was obvious. I persevered, but knowing that it was only a matter of time before things grinded to a halt, and informal education would lock down like the stadiums. The answers were not readily forthcoming, and a change of perspective was in order. We need to stop viewing the distance as a hindrance and start seeing it as an advantage.
The call was fast and almost indiscernible. “Jump on a Zoom call now.” The imperative was from a colleague and close friend whom I trusted. “We’re planning this Escape the Zoom thing,” he said as I joined the call. “You know, the virtual Escape Room we talked about in the meeting? We want your input.” There was only one other person on the call, another very capable colleague. The three of us hashed out a narrative, created characters with online social media accounts and devised puzzles. The project was coming along nicely. Suddenly it clicked. This is the new angle. If we can’t create a social atmosphere where pizza and conversation are the attraction, we’ll design a competitive one.
People will unite in their passion to solve puzzles and coalesce to beat their opponents. The once cozy, chatty ambiance was quickly giving way to a fiery, impassioned one. This was it. Our way to engage teens perhaps more than ever. The Great Neck team led the charge. Their weekly quiz nights attracted tremendous numbers, and galvanized otherwise lackluster teens. Yet, one question remained: Where was the education?
It’s questions like this, or rather their solutions, that separate the men from the boys, the pros from the amateurs. Since the day informal education started, the dilemma of finding the right proportion of informal to formal education has been a topic of great discussion. In the previous model, the approach was simple. Schmooze, chill, eat the pizza—oh, and throw in a quick idea related to the parsha. Well, not anymore. The sudden shift in circumstance brought up the old question with a fury. If competitive spirit will bring teens together, there is surely no room left for a quick Torah thought? We had to find a way to insert the education into the competition itself.
For basic competitions such as quizzes or game shows, this proved more than doable. Incorporate some educational trivia and discuss the topic and, just like that, problem solved. It was the vastly complex and highly competitive programs, though, that drew the most teens, and it was they who had to get creative to find a way to include education.
“Escape the Zoom” took off. Hours and hours of programming, trialing and reprogramming led to huge success. Teens poured in in droves to navigate their way through the accounts of main character Mark Zoomberger, in an attempt to assist Mark’s helpless teacher in escaping the Zoom. But still, the content was shy of Torah and education. Fun and compelling as it was, Escape the Zoom 2.0 would need to find the answer. Giving teens a good time is great, but not the NCSY mission.
Not a week later, the answer came. The narrative! So used to tying quick Torah ideas into games, we hadn’t thought to tie the game into the Torah. Born was Escape the Zoom Lag B’Omer edition. Now not a fictional story with fake characters, but a true story of the holy Rav Shimon bar Yochai. By navigating the puzzle, teens would learn the details of this tannaic narrative, in a modern, interactive way. The educational revolution had begun.
Necessity is not only the mother of invention in the world of science. As the world has undergone a drastic shift in its every corner, education has had to ride the wave as much as anything else. New, unexplored avenues are being uncovered each day, and with an efficient shift in perspective, treasure troves can be dug up. If nothing else, the coronavirus has shocked people into actually thinking. Routine is the comfort of knowing what’s next without contemplation; pandemic is staying on your toes without a clue as to what’s to come. When life gives you lemons, start a revolution.
Avi Solomon is the director of Long Island and Queens Day Schools, NCSY.