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A CoP Comes To Life
October 27, 2010 by Howard Blas
I was sitting in my living room at 9:30 pm Sunday night, staring at my computer screen, hoping and praying. And one by one, they appeared--Rose from Chicago, Elyssa from Denver, Beth from New Jersey, Adam and Casey from Toronto, Ralph from Chicago and me—in Manhattan. And Avi joined us for twenty minutes from his home in Washington, DC to update us on the status of the Tikvah Ramah Bike Ride in Israel.

For weeks, I had been preparing for this day. Our Ramah Special Needs Program Directors Community of Practice (“CoP”), designed to connect directors from eight Ramah programs in four time zones in the US and Canada, has been meeting regularly since April, 2010. In our Google Group and in our conference calls, we have been offering each other support and sharing information relevant to directors of overnight camping programs, vocational training programs, and family camp programs—from staff training to buddy programs; social skills groups, Yahadut curriculums, use of technology with a special needs population, fund raising, and Israel trips—even such sensitive issues as sexuality and marriage.

But Sunday was different. After sending out Meeting Wizard to find a date to bring all of us together, then trying out Megameeting with three smaller groups, speaking with Megameeting tech support (“how do we reduce feedback and squelching?” “can a member who will be on the road call in by phone?”), sending out step by step instructions and reassuring notes to our somewhat technophobic group, and…praying--the moment arrived!

One by one, the nervous faces turned to smiling faces. Within minutes, we were hearing about a May, 2011 bike ride in Israel to raise scholarship money to support our programs. We were learning about the successful Buddy Program in Ramah Wisconsin. We were sharing ideas about the successful “Shabbos Is Calling” Program in New England—and discussing ways to use video conferencing to connect campers in the winter months—in Canada, California, Wisconsin, and New England. The group was excited when they learned that we can apply for a foundation grant for this exciting project—aimed at connecting a population which often feels isolated. We discussed staff hiring, and the role of the division head within our programs. And, best of all, our ninety minute meeting ended with plans for our next video conference, and with a discussion of when and where we might meet over the summer for an in person meeting. The group was excited to meet at one of the camps—to see an actual program in action!

I am proud of my colleagues who are the best proof that online technology works! A group of busy camp directors who live in four time zones, have other employment in the winter, and are a bit nervous with new technology, are excited to meet and share on a regular basis.

Perhaps we should invite Tzvi Daum to join us in a future MegaMeeting. Daum, in a recent blogpost writes:

I don't want to sound pessimistic or be the naysayer who says it can't be done, but until I see a successful open source Jewish educational project I remain unconvinced about the viability of using open source to solve Jewish educational needs. I know for example, the Jim Joseph Foundation made a grant to 14 fellows to build online communities of practice, I am curious where that will lead to after two years of training.

We can tell Daum how helpful our CoP has been, and we can let him know what we have accomplished after just one year of Jim Joseph Foundation Fellowship training. I hope he will share my excitement when I tell him my plans for our CoP going forward—connecting counselors and staff from Ramah camps. And a CoP for all staff members of Jewish special needs camps—Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, Community—you name it. And if he has time, I can share updates about the status of my 13 amazing Jim Joseph colleagues—all hard at work on their CoPs—and changing the landscape in the area of education and online technology. Visit us, Tzvi!