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Historic Youth Leadership Course Adapts to New Online Reality

Updated: Jan 7, 2021

The creative brains of Dror Israel’s youth movement are hard at work exploring how to train tomorrow’s leaders and counselors using digital means and other tools for social distancing

For the first time since the State of Israel was established, there will be no traditional summer youth movement leadership training courses. It is hard to overstate the significance of this for youth movements like the Federation for Working and Studying Youth – Dror Israel’s youth movement. The summer leadership course is nationally recognized, year after year preparing a new generation of junior counselors to guide youth movement activities throughout the country. The course has a proud history, boasting the likes of Yitzhak Rabin, Shimon Peres and even Ariel Sharon among its alumni. Now, for the first time in more than 70 years, the course’s existence has been jeopardized by the ongoing crisis of COVID-19.

A normal summer in Dror Israel's Youth Movement

In a normal summer, more than one thousand 9th-graders from the entire breadth of Israeli society would make their way to a campground in a forest in northern Israel for an 11-day leadership training course. There they would learn the fundamentals of informal education, including how to work with and mentor large groups of kids, guide hiking trips and create safe, secure and enjoyable environment for kids on overnight and regular activities. This year, the sounds of thousands of young people talking, laughing, singing and learning together will go silent as the forest lies dormant under the prohibitive government restrictions applied to youth activities this summer.

However, Dror Israel’s youth movement leaders have refused to give in. The education team moved swiftly into adaptation mode, trying to understand how to bring the course's content directly to the teens stuck at home.

“The first thing we had to do was train the facilitators of the course,” said Maya Lamm, a key person on the team charged with adapting the course to fit the times. “The leadership training course is something that usually happens nationally with around a thousand participants. We had to translate it to be a localized course for teens in specific locations in smaller groups. The course is also usually run by counselors in their late 20s who have been doing this for years. We had to train many younger counselors to run the adapted courses and give them the confidence to do what they needed to do.”

Adjusting our summer programs for the youth

The team also had to decide what activities are to be run in person and what must run virtually. The course had to be changed a lot to fit numbers and social distancing. The idea of it being a kind of summer camp environment where youth could sleep away from home had to be put aside.

“What was hard was there are some things that you just can’t do virtually. Also 9th-graders are still young, it’s hard for them to be in front of a computer for that long,” Lamm said. “It’s also hard to understand what to do when the directives from the government say you can’t do anything in person at all.”

Until now, the movement has led volunteering efforts at day camps that received approval to run. The government has allowed programming for younger children up to 5th grade to continue. So, localized leadership courses have been taking their 9th-grader participants to learn the ropes as junior counselors in these summer camps. Course participants meet before the camp starts for training activities that grant them the necessary tools to guide the younger children. At the end of the day, the participants sit down with the course facilitator to discuss how the day went and to learn from their experiences. Unfortunately, in some cities and towns even that is no longer possible.

“It feels like we have to struggle to meet with these kids in any capacity,” says Lamm. “What’s hard is that youth can still do things like go to the mall, go to the beach or meet up in a cafe, but they can’t be in any kind of educational programming. It’s very hard for youth to not be in any kind of framework for the entire summer – it can lead to all kinds of reckless behavior. The message they’re receiving is: ‘just stay out of the way, you are not important and don’t have any part to play in this crisis like be leaders for young children who need programming.’”

The smaller and more intimate learning space demanded by the restrictions may allow for certain positives to emerge as well. The creators of the leadership course are hopeful that doing things locally this year will help teens connect more to their neighborhoods, to their communities and to each other. Ultimately, certainly historic aspects of the leadership course will be forced off the itinerary altogether, such as learning to guide hikes or overnight trips. Instead, keeping a keen eye on the near future, course facilitators are trying to figure out how to train the participants to lead programming online.

On the bright side, this year more than1,500 Israeli 9th-graders have registered for the course that will teach them to be leaders in their communities and in their country. This marks an uptick in registration and indicates at least one reason to be hopeful for the future.

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