It’s been 10 years since Yechiel Hoffman and Ken Gordon launched JEDLAB at five in the morning at the 2013 National Jewish Day School Conference in Washington, DC. We decided to mark the anniversary by nudging the co-founders into kibitzing about the lessons of JEDLAB—now 12,000 members strong—and how today’s educators can apply them to their own work and careers.
Hoffman: In the beginning, JEDLAB encouraged educators to seek colleagues beyond the people in their schools, classrooms and hallways. To consider the hallways that existed in the virtual spaces as real. We pushed it even further saying, “Online, you can find people all over the place who are asking the big questions about education and offering you new approaches and strategies.” I’m curious if nowadays people still feel that same level of openness. Or did the pandemic put up walls for people, because they were dealing with so much stuff, and interfere with the ability to find people in unexpected places to learn from or to work with?
Gordon: Yep. JEDLAB was Hebrew school teachers talking to Jewish studies professors, talking to development professionals, talking to people in communications (like me!). It was an unusual and welcoming community. As for the pandemic: It did rebuild some of those demolished silos. We need to knock ’em down again. It’s a challenge because we’re much more aware of how social media operates now. A lot of us avoid broadcasting, avoid putting ourselves into the big social machine that aims to monetize every last bit of our attention. Many people have intentionally contracted their social circles smaller because they want a different kind of digital culture.
Hoffman: I’ve always been an advocate for the importance of self-care and identifying mental health as being part of the holistic piece of a professional educator’s life. Lately I’ve been asking: Do online communal spaces, even online learning spaces, reinforce a kind of positive mental health?
JEDLAB became a very large group pretty quickly. When we were thinking about JEDLAB originally, we wanted it to have what Martin Buber might have called the I-You mentality. We wanted to build as many one-on-one connections as we could. I feel like that model can actually reinforce a healthy sort of support. But when you enter into a very large group… what could that do for you, other than summon the worst of what the Internet provides, trolling and yelling and such?
Gordon: I-You doesn’t scale. Authentic conversations, authentic relationships, are very difficult to maintain in groups of 200–and impossible in groups of 3,000 or 12,000. So what do we say to people who are hoping to capture some of the energizing spirit of JEDLAB’s early days?
Hoffman: I appreciate the fact that we started as a one-on-one relationship before we expanded it, even in the original circle, to 10, 15, 20 people. All those relationships were built on a sense of mutual support and asking, “How can we help each other fill the gaps of what we weren’t getting on our own from our jobs or from our immediate colleagues?”
I would encourage HaYidion readers to start their new communities with groups of twos or fives. My friend Josh Feldman, of R&R, talks about this a lot. With twos, you can really get an honest, informal relationship going. With five, you can create a dynamic that provides more dimensionality and more resources. And differing perspectives. Sometimes in one-on-one situations, you get locked into a certain biased, or even oppositional, way of seeing things. With five, you can kind of soften the curves.
I’m curious about the ways you can identify and cultivate those relationships, whether it’s in-person at the next conference you go to or whether it’s online, through, let’s say, LinkedIn.
Gordon: Look for people who aren’t like you. (I’ve had good luck with doctors and designers.) Hang with those who might require you to learn something new. And find a common text that you can share. The JEDLAB book club model is a useful here. Throwing a book such as The Sorcerers and Their Apprentices by Frank Moss of the MIT Media Lab out there, offering your opinion and seeing who else responds, is a great way to find your people.
I never told myself, “I’m gonna converse with a dude named Yechiel who lives in LA and has (1) a Chabad background, (2) a doctorate, and (3) a rabbinical certification”–but there we were, online, talking feverishly about Sorcerers. Our conversations were relational because there was no transactional element. We immediately saw we had complementary ideas, and we built on that.
Hoffman: I want to ask educators: How do you see the commonalities between people? Can you draw Venn diagrams illustrating what you share with others rather than looking at the things that separate you? They should try to find people who are opening up conversations and not be turned off if they don’t share your exact identifiers or they’re not working in the same sector or have a different role than yours. Look for the things that you have in common so that those conversations are open up.
Gordon: Get past the superficial markers of your professional and digital identities.
Hoffman: When at professional conferences, pay attention to what people are saying and not what their name tag says.
Gordon: One of the things that annoyed us about the conference was that they had the experts on the stage … and the rest of us idiots in the audience. The separation inhibited dialogue. We wanted to enable more dialogue. Better dialogue. Real dialogue.
Part of this is not suffering through a lot of superficial conversations. We want to encourage people to use honesty and curiosity to bust through superficial conversations. This can be tough to do, and it won’t always work, but eventually you may just find someone who’ll respond with something truly meaningful.
Hoffman: Say you’re going to a gathering, whether it’s an in-person conference or in a digital community, and people are talking about interesting things. You know, it’s good to listen. I’ve been finding there’s a lot of small, cohort-based groups that have been started either officially or more informally, and they’re usually friends of friends. And I’ve been meeting people through these things, people I’ve never met before. And I’m finding those to be extremely rewarding. People are just emerging into their social lives again and small, cohort-based environments make it easy to allow us to find those commonalities.
Gordon: Have enough confidence in yourself to reach out to anybody who says something interesting. The world is so connected now that if an author puts something out there that is interesting, you can probably have a conversation with them about it.
Hoffman: Are you finding people are still (a) reading and (b) willing to make new connections around the things that they’re passionate about reading?
Gordon: One thing is 100% true: People who spend two years writing a book are filled to the brim with their subject, and if someone asks them a good, thoughtful question, they’ll answer. Doing so is basically raising your hand and saying, “I want to be your student.” And that is irresistible to the natural pedagogue, to someone who is a legitimate expert.
With our digitally connected communities, you can actually see the conversations happening after a new book is released. The public nature and the speed is new. We’re talking about the era of mobile agile hevrutah.
So many of our professional relationships are transactional. Transaction is, in fact, what a career is in many ways. This goes in the other direction. Getting relational allows you to transcend your job and your field. Give yourself permission to think beyond “What can I get from the person I’m talking with?”
Hoffman: Let’s talk about the long-term relationships that were fostered in early days of JEDLAB and how creating something new without the expectation of what it would become was a fertile ground for creating relationships that last.
Gordon: Since JEDLAB, both of us have gone off and done a bunch of different kinds of things separately. But we keep periodically getting together, on video chat or phone. You even visited me in Boston. We’re always recapping the most recent thing … and there’s always this potential for our next collaboration to appear. Attention HaYidion-sters: Being in conversation in relation with a sympathetic creator-pal is endlessly energizing, and it helps you care about what you’re currently cooking up.
Hoffman: What would you want to say to Ken Gordon of 2013?
Gordon: I would tell that guy not to worry about what other people are going to say or do about JEDLAB. We knew that nobody asked for JEDLAB, and so, in the back of my mind, I was always concerned that it would be “taken away” because it was an extracurricular adventure. You?
Hoffman: I would tell my 2013 self to chill. It will work out. It’s gonna work out the way it needs to. And the most important thing that will come out of it are the relationships you’ve built through the process.
JEDLAB was really atypical. Educators who work in schools together collaborate closely, but if one of them leaves to go to another school, then it’s suddenly the end.
Gordon: Digital communities give you a chance to create colleagues of choice.
Hoffman: The evolving professional friendship that transcends a particular project is something worth cultivating.
Gordon: I imagine that with our youngest Jewish educators, that sort of continual, longitudinal communication will be part of their professional lives. My young-adult kids are almost never not talking to their friends on one platform or another.
Hoffman: Can you talk about the ways that you build community now?
Gordon: Honestly, it’s still very similar to the way it was in JEDLAB. I am by nature a reader, writer, teacher, learner. I’m pretty much always engaged in those activities simultaneously. I brought that into JEDLAB. I’m still doing that now, but in the world of innovation and design. I read books, connect with authors and experts—via email, via LinkedIn—and bring them onto the podcasts I produce or interview them for articles. Sometimes we co-write. What about you?
Hoffman: What’s really important to me right now is building mini-communities, anywhere between five and 25 people who share some kind of affinity, but with enough difference to make it interesting. I’m just enjoying learning different ways to cultivate and intensify those communities. Most of these groups happen to be primarily living within a virtual environment and communicating digitally. So we can be geographically dispersed.
In some ways it’s what we tried to do 10 years ago, but the technology was so fast and agile at that moment that we had no choice but to scale up to a place where it wasn’t within our original vision. I’m not letting the technology dictate the way I think it dictated the growth of our group in 2013.