Multicultural Dialogue in the Age of COVID-19

The social distance brought upon us due to the COVID-19 pandemic struck us with a challenge – how can we initiate effective dialogue without meeting each other? Our methods rely on human contact between the participants. This face-to-face interaction is crucial to building empathy and trust, which are so vital to achieve our goals. Therefore, we were very skeptical of the possibility of online meetings. However, when we understood that we wouldn’t be able to meet face-to-face for a long time, we started to think “what can we do, what is our role during this crisis?”

Our first test with the ‘Zoom’ platform was with the students from the ‘Shagi’ tutoring program at Ben Gurion University in Beer Sheva. Usually, Shagi participants volunteer in the schools of Beer Sheva and the Beduin village of Um Batin, and meet for a dialogue session once every two weeks (you can read all about this program here). The online ‘Zoom’ meeting was the first time we met the students since last semester, and there was much rejoicing.

We started with a simple sharing exercise, and asked them how they are dealing with the new situation – how are they feeling, where are they staying, what their days look like and what occupies them?

The answers were surprisingly sincere. Some told about the complex experience of being sent on an involuntary break from work, on the economic struggle and sympathy for the employer that had to close the business. Some stayed in Beer Sheva and spoke about an empty city and the difficulty of being quarantined with their flat mates, while the majority of students went back to the parents.

The participants shared insight about their emotional state as well, from their sorrow about the intermission of the meetings, the desire to gather and study together again, all the way to concerns about the unstable political situation that is currently unfolding in Israel.

Amir, one of the participants and a resident of a Bedouin community in the Negev, shared a very interesting perspective. All of the students are having difficulties with the online courses, but in many Bedouin villages there isn’t even the most basic internet infrastructure necessary for a continuous video call. The Bedouin students contacted the University about the issue, and after a petition was sent, signed by both Bedouin and Jewish students, the University promised to find a solution.

Following the surprisingly successful session we decided to reinitiate all our dialogue groups in a virtual format. Despite the challenges, we’ve discovered that the participants were eager for the opportunity to talk and share, and we are very proud that we could satisfy this need.

Our group that lives in the dorms of Kinneret College left the residence two weeks ago, and, like the group from Beer Sheva, deeply miss their peers. We talked to them recently, through ‘Zoom’ as well, of course, about our personal and communal resources in this time of crisis. We asked what kind of things assist us these days? The answers and conclusions were reassuring, offering a sense that there are infrastructures, social services, volunteering groups and people to rely on.  

We are glad for the opportunity to challenge ourselves and find the way to remain relevant and active even in the most bizarre of the situations. We hope that we can meet the groups in person soon and wish you all a happy (even if nontraditional) Passover!