August 31, 2021
Remember that hilarious scene from Friends when Ross, Rachel and Chandler try to schlep a couch up the stairs and Ross vigorously commands his friends to “PIVOT! PIVOT! PIVOT!” (Whether you remember or not, it’s worth watching again: https://youtu.be/hWruEaP4ysI)
Reflecting on the last 18 months, I feel as though I’ve been living in that scene, and it’s been playing on loop. In the realm of my professional life: corona is the staircase, my work is the couch, and my colleagues are Chandler and Rachel. For eighteen months, we have been constantly forced to pivot, and it has required a tremendous amount of energy and cooperation. As we work together to climb higher, we face turn after turn, and need to find creative solutions to navigate each step of the way.
As the Executive Director of Aardvark Israel, an organization offering gap year and study programs to 18-21 year old Jewish students from all over the world, I fortunately did not find myself furloughed, nor was I simply working from home. But as you can imagine, the last year and a half has not been simple.
I can’t remember if they ever succeeded in getting the couch into Ross’ apartment and I am not sure when we will ever be done with covid. But I do know that I’ve learned a lot during the pandemic that will guide me past these challenging times.
1. Look past the obstacles and find the opportunities instead. When the pandemic began, we continued to operate our programs in a modified format. But in May 2020, as the program year wound down, it became clear that a few students would be unable to fly home due to border closures. The first wave of covid was waning and Israeli society reopening, so rather than find a solution for a handful of participants “stuck” in Israel, we built a summer program and invited all our students to stay. Almost everyone signed up for the additional two months and joyfully spent the summer interning, hiking, and exploring Israel, in many ways, making up for the time spent in lockdown.
Fast forward to the Fall of 2020. As students were sitting in their parents’ living rooms learning on zoom instead of on their university campuses, our organization launched a hybrid program, “Remote Study Israel,” which offered college students the opportunity to bring their laptops to Israel so that they could continue studying while also experiencing Israel. Through weekly Sunday field trips, and cultural, educational, and social programming during the time they weren’t in zoom classes, our participants had the chance to strengthen their Jewish identities and connection to Israel while still advancing their college careers. Most of these students would not have come to Israel if it hadn’t been for covid.
Most recently, in July 2021, when the government gave seven days advance notice that the United Kingdom would be classified as a “red country,” preventing our British students from traveling to Israel, we invited them to come immediately and in a matter of 72 hours built a month of programming for them. Although we could have given them free time for all of August, we recognized the opportunity to make lemonade out of lemons and provide them with an educational and enjoyable experience to enhance their time in Israel.
Through each of these examples, our team looked past the challenges covid presented and instead focused on the openings it created and hundreds of students benefited as result. Through creativity and innovation, Aardvark Israel operated the largest gap year program in the world in 2020-2021 with 300 participants!
2. Value organizational partnerships. As Magic Johnson said, “When you face a crisis, you know who your true friends are.” The tourism industry throughout the world has been decimated, but thousands of young people traveled to Israel this past year as participants in study, volunteer, and career development programs which immersed them into Israeli society. Although each program worked hard to accomplish the seemingly impossible this past year, it would not have happened without Masa Israel Journey, a project of the Jewish Agency and the Government of Israel. The incredible team at Masa worked tirelessly to ensure government approval for the arrival of program participants, provided health and safety guidance, and gave program organizers additional support and resources. Our organization has always had a positive, collaborative relationship with Masa, but this year truly demonstrated the mutual benefits of partnership in a magnified way. We also created new relationships, for example, with the Homefront Command and the Ministry of Health. Through cultivating professional relationships with key individuals in these two organizations, we successfully arranged on-site PCR testing on Yom HaAtzmaut (Independence Day) for 130 participants who had recently arrived in Israel in order to not extend their quarantine longer than necessary. These valued connections enabled us to operate safely and successfully.
3. Don’t ignore organizational culture. Israeli journalist Amnon Abramovich described covid as an x-ray for society. Within many organizations, the pandemic has highlighted cracks in the foundations of company culture as we are challenged to work under constantly changing conditions. Now more than ever it is critical that we remind ourselves of our organization’s values and ensure that we are operating in line with those beliefs. Rather than blame corona, we must use it as a tool. As Jim Collins explains in his book Good to Great, exemplary companies look in the mirror, acknowledge and take responsibility for their shortfalls, and make the necessary adjustments. As we continue to pivot and navigate the pandemic, we must not forget to invest in our organizational culture and shore up areas which need our attention.
4. Embrace change. Almost twelve years ago when we founded Aardvark Israel, we wrote a set of ten staff core values that would be a guide to us for years to come. One of those values is “embrace change.” It’s a nice thing to say, but it’s a very different thing to do. The pandemic forced all of us to change but fortunately, built into our organizational culture is sense of acceptance rather than resistance to change. Things we had done for years had to be revised and reimagined, and our staff rose to the task. At times when government restrictions prevented us from taking our regular field trips, we rolled up our sleeves and explored Israel through volunteering excursions. We assisted farmers, packed covid kits, and organized supplies on an army base. Not only did our students see Israel through these trips, they also met and interacted with Israelis and contributed to society at a time in which it was needed most. When our participants look back on their experience, they’ll remember the hiking trips we took, but they’ll also remember the contribution they made.
A few months ago, many of us thought we had beat covid in Israel and that life would return to normal. Can you hear Ross screaming PIVOT again? I can. Covid isn’t over and the start of the new year will surely bring new challenges for all of us. But if we look back at all we’ve learned and adjust accordingly, we will succeed.