The 4th Sustainability and Community Conference Unites Participants Amidst COVID

This is the fourth year the Heschel Center co-hosted the Sustainability and Community Conference. This year, like seemingly everything else, the conference focused on the COVID-19 pandemic and different solutions communities used to deal with the crisis. Some of these solutions can provide us with some lessons we can apply to future crises, such as climate change.

These types of situations present us with stark choices: those that provide communal resilience and long-term thinking based on sustainable values, and other options that favor individualism and short-term solutions. During this conference we focused on practices that promote communal resilience.

The presentations were extremely informative and inspirational: The municipality of Bnei Brak, a city with the largest population density in Israel and a majority of Haredi communities, was facing multifaceted challenges. They had to publicize the dangers of the virus, and the importance of wearing masks and observing social distancing, where large segments of the population do not use the Internet or possess smartphones. They also had to overcome the technological challenge of providing an educational framework for school-aged children aged between the ages of 3-18. The two female municipality representatives showcased their innovative work during the six months after the COVID-19 outbreak began. First, they hung posters and circulated throughout the city \with a truck that made announcements regarding the virus. At the same time, they created a telephone hotline for girls’ public daycare facilities so that children could listen to a story, play games, and speak with their teacher. Later on, they published a booklet with educational resources and information and distributed it free of charge.

Other presentations were from Beit Shemesh, which launched an online shopping site for local businesses and a volunteering youth squad in the town of Afula that cared for people in need during the first lockdown. Research was also presented about COVID-19’s impact on Israelis’ environmental behavior.

Logistical Innovations: In addition to the substance, the format of the conference was also shaped by Corona. The Ministry of Health’s guidelines also presented logistical challenges for how to conduct a gathering during a pandemic.

In order to meet these social distancing guidelines, a number of steps were taken. First, the entire conference was held outside. Nine registration stations were placed around the entrance of the garden so that participants could check-in with small numbers. Participants signed heath declarations and wore masks around the garden. Participants were divided into nine groups of up to 20 people, while registration was capped at 150. Each participant chose their own group during the initial online registration, which was kept apart from these other “capsules” throughout the entire day during both sessions and the breaks (which took place in shaded areas throughout the botanical garden).

The opening plenary was conducted via Zoom while each group was walking to its first respective location, with each participant tuning in with their personal phones. The guest speaker was Rakefet Ginsberg, former Deputy Director of the Community Outreach Unit in Natal, Israel’s Trauma and Resilience Center. Rakefet discussed the psychological impact of the lockdown. She provided the necessary context for the entire conference, to discuss how municipalities, communities and individuals took initiative during these challenging times.