There was something a little uncanny about my last trip to Chicago.

Let me explain: I’ve spent much of the last eight years planning and executing residential education programs as the Academic Director of the Yiddish Book Center. In these programs, different sorts of participants—high school students, college students, writers, media professionals, and, most recently, through a grant from the Jim Joseph Foundation, high school and middle school teachers—gather at the Center to learn Yiddish, study modern Jewish literature, and connect with one another.

Overseeing and teaching in dozens of these programs over the years, for more than eight hundred participants, I’ve figured out a lot about what makes them work.

So, what was unusual about my trip in August for a Jim Joseph Foundation gathering was not just that, for a change, I was in the role of participant rather than organizer (that happens, from time to time), but that all the other participants, themselves directors of Jewish professional development programs of one sort or another, have similar experiences to me. It’s funny to do an icebreaker when you know that all the people doing it are, like you, people whose job it is to lead icebreakers.

That, of course, was what ultimately made the gathering meaningful. As different as our organizations and programs are, so many of the issues we face on a regular basis are uncannily similar. All of us are trying, in one way or another, to educate Jewish educators. Both in the substance of what it means to do that—how do you help an educator to do their job more effectively?—and in the methods we use to accomplish our goals (retreats, seminars, websites, and so on), we found a whole lot to discuss and debate.

Rosov Consulting, which facilitated the convening, created many different kinds of opportunities for us to share challenges and experiences, and to brainstorm and be creative. One moment stands out to me in this regard in particular. I casually spoke with a couple of the other participants about an aspect of our work I always find challenging: connecting with program participants virtually, after a workshop or retreat has ended.

As we talked about this, someone raised the idea of holding regular e-conferences, using platforms like Zoom, GoToMeeting, or Google Hangouts. One of the participants responded emphatically: “Those really don’t work for us. No matter how we do them, and even if the technology cooperates, it’s just never really satisfying.”

That was important for me to hear because I also feel those platforms don’t fully work for the Yiddish Book Center’s programs either. I’ve always wondered why we don’t see stronger results when we try to use those with our participants. Were we doing something wrong, choosing the wrong platform, or not approaching an e-conference in the right way? Why was it that in-person gatherings were always so much more intense and meaningful, in so many of our programs? It’s certainly possible that we can still find ways to make this kind of post-program virtual meeting work for us; but it was, frankly, a relief for me to hear that it’s not just us who find that modality mostly lackluster. I began to feel less anxious about trying to make that particular approach to alumni engagement work, and it inspired me to put more energy into exploring other methods for connecting with our participants once they’re home.

And, of course, one of the most useful outcomes of this Chicago gathering was that I now have a diverse and enthusiastic group of program directors to whom I can turn with questions about what works for them, and what doesn’t.  This is exactly the type of community that will help support me as I pursue my goals and look to advance our alumni engagement in new and meaningful ways.

This article was initially posted on the Jim Joseph Foundation’s blog. Click here to view the original.