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Making community online

OpenDor offers educational content to local schools — and the whole world

Dr. Noam Weissman interviews Natan Sharansky for OpenDor. (OpenDor)
Dr. Noam Weissman interviews Natan Sharansky for OpenDor. (OpenDor)

Schools are doing an extraordinary job coming up with online content, reinventing ways to connect with their students and their families. They have to — all of a sudden, all the conventional ways of connecting suddenly, shockingly have become impossible.

But everyone doesn’t have to reinvent constantly. Sometimes it’s okay to use someone else’s beautifully rolling wheel.

OpenDor is an Israeli-based nonprofit that provides free digital content to anyone who wants it. Its CEO, Dina Rabhan — who grew up in Fair Lawn, and still has much family and many friends in the local community — has been watching “the entire Jewish community pivot to digital in a week,” she said.

“It’s been remarkable. We’ve been banging the drum for this for at least as long as I’ve been with the company” — that’s three and a half years — but now, suddenly, events have forced an understanding of what it is that OpenDor does.

Some history — the company was founded 11 years ago, but until recently it was called Jerusalem U. OpenDor is a bit of a bilingual pun; it’s both an opening into digital content that provides an understanding of Jewish and Israeli culture — that’s the English-language “open door” part — and an opening to the Hebrew-language “dor” — generation — of digital natives.

“As an organization, we are mission-driven to reach people between 13 and 34,” Ms. Rabhan said. “We have been telling the Jewish community at large that this is that generation’s primary learning environment. Even when they go to school, they use their phones to ask questions, to socialize. It is their place. We have been saying for a long time that we should optimize it.”

Natan Sharansky talks to the homebound online.

Now that the coronavirus has pushed everyone into their houses and shut the doors, “we have an important opportunity both for Jewish infrastructure and for Jewish children. This is a huge opportunity to engage and educate young Jewish using their preferred platform.”

In other words, as other organizations have been forced online because they have no other way to reach their participants — they’ve been faced with lemons, so they’re gamely making lemonade — OpenDor has always been in the lemonade business. It’s not a default for them — it’s always been their product of choice, and they make very fancy lemonade.

OpenDor has three divisions, or brands, as Ms. Rabhan calls them. Unpacked provides short videos on such platforms as Instagram and YouTube; Imagination is a film production company, and Unpacked for Educators is “a web resource; we take everything from the other two brands and repurpose it.” It also has “extensive curricular resources, some other film and video resources, and a weekly newsletter.” That newsletter, which had about 1,800 subscribers a few weeks ago, and tended to add about 30 new subscribers a week, got about 100 new names on its list this week. “It’s crazy,” Ms. Rabhan said on March 20. “We usually add about 2,500 unique visitors a month; now the month isn’t even finished and we’re almost up to 6,000.”

That’s because the videos that OpenDor offers — in educators’ language, it’s asynchronous learning; the lack of synchronicity is because the film is recorded at one time and audiences watch it at another time — are useful to teachers who are scrambling to record their own videos, interact with their students on Zoom or similar platforms, and in many cases also take care of their own children, all at the same time.

“We offer high-quality materials,” Ms. Rabhan said. “That’s our unique value proposition — they’re easy to access, and they’re free. So while schools are figuring out how to deal with this situation — and there is no end in sight to it — they just come to the website.”

OpenDor also has begun to offer live calls; this week, for example, Natan Sharansky, the Soviet-refusenik-turned-Israeli-politician, government leader, and all-around icon, spoke. So did Sara Hurwitz, Michelle Obama’s former speechwriter, who just wrote a book called “Here All Along: Finding Meaning, Spirituality, and a Deeper Connection to Life — in Judaism (After Finally Choosing to Look There).” (The wonderful thing about that title is that no further explanation is needed.) (See below for upcoming speakers.)

Dina Rabhan

As just those two speaker show, OpenDor is non-sectarian; it’s aimed at all Jews, and is not promoting any one stream. It also tries to be apolitical, and steers clear of endorsing any political party or belief, beyond its bedrock Zionism.

Many Bergen County Jewish middle and high schools use OpenDor, Ms. Rabhan said; that includes but is not limited to Schechter, Frisch, and Ma’ayanot. In fact, Ma’ayanot is one of its 14 partner schools.

The model that OpenDor presents is particularly useful right now, Ms. Rabhan continued. Quoting a mentor, she said, “we shouldn’t say that school’s out. It just looks different now.

“I am fascinated by what Jewish education, and really education in general, looked like before covid and will look like after covid,” she continued. “I think that this is forcing everyone to approach learning in a flexible way. If you are in a brick-and-mortar building, you won’t have to do this.

“Being in brick and mortar is wonderful. Being in person is wonderful. But young people learn in different ways. We can leverage media as a tool, a powerful tool. It shouldn’t be abandoned once this is over. It should become more normal, more integrated into whatever the new normal will be.”

The advantages to online educational programming, Open Dor and its supporters believe, is that “we want to be sure that Jewish and Israel education is accessible to everyone who wants access to it. Trips are wonderful, programs are wonderful, but media is what allows us to reach and teach audiences that otherwise couldn’t be reached or taught. It democratizes Jewish education. The internet democratizes knowledge.”

OpenDor works on the full range of devices, from desktops through laptops and tablets to phones.

“If you have a phone, you have access,” Ms. Rabhan said.


What: OpenDor’s “Game Changers Live”

When: On every Monday and Wednesday at 3 p.m.

Where: At www.youtube.com/unpacked

Who: These are the speakers from March 27 to April 6 (note that these talks are aimed primarily at teachers and students, but everyone is welcome)

Monday, March 30, at 3 p.m.: Journalist and writer Yossi Klein Halevi, author of the award-winning “Like Dreamers”

Wednesday, April 1, at 3 p.m.: Comedian and actor Elon Gold

Monday, April 3, at 3 p.m.: New York Times columnist Bari Weiss

And also: OpenDor is online at opendormedia.org

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