In April, 2020, only three weeks past the start of America’s lockdown due to the Coronavirus pandemic, I created the Global Jewish Pen Pal Program. My goal was to help people learn more about Jewish life around the world through developing one on one interactions and friendships with Jews in different countries. We were all feeling socially isolated, so why not find a silver lining in the crazy time and help connect people from around the world?
As a new organization, it is near impossible to predict how things will turn out before they happen. I go with the flow and learn as I move forward. Each day I realize new ways to grow the program, or small improvements that will help make the program run smoother. It is never too late to make changes. Below, check out five things I have learned, from the broad to the specific, while connecting people from all over the world.
1) Time differences
When making sure to return emails in a timely manner, and scheduling meetings with various people who are interested in learning more about the Global Jewish Pen Pal Program, it has been essential that I make sure I get time differences right. Often, I spend my days meeting with people all the way across the world, anywhere from one hour to 15 hours ahead of my own time. My work hours vary from a meeting at 7:00 am to a late night video call at 9:00 pm.
Connecting people with pen pals all around the world has forced me to quickly learn what time it is in different time zones. It’s a practical piece of knowledge that is great to have in hand. Now, if you ask me what time it is in India or New Zealand I can rattle off the answer immediately, without the need for a Google search.
2) Just because you speak English does not mean we speak the same language
About five months into the program, the largest Jewish newspaper in the United Kingdom, The Jewish News, published an article about the Global Jewish Pen Pal Program. I was ecstatic. “36 British Jews join international pen pal scheme” the headline read. I skimmed the headline and moved right on to the article. But apparently, the headline was super important, in fact, I soon learned it caused a number of people to stop reading.
When I asked my dad if he saw the article The Jewish News wrote, he responded: “I did. And I liked everything about it, except for the word scheme.”
I was taken aback. He had focused on a single word out of the whole article? That really showed the impact that words make on readers. One word has the power to change the way a reader thinks about something.
“Scheme is not a negative word in British English,” I explained. (Something I knew thanks to my childhood obsession with the Harry Potter series.)
“It’s not? Scheme just sounds wrong to me. Sounds negative.”
“It sounds negative in American English, and that’s how you are thinking of the word. People in the United Kingdom use the word differently. It is not a negative term.”
I didn’t seem capable of convincing him to give up his pre conceived notion of the word, and think of it from the perspective of the person who wrote it. In British English the word is not negative like in the United States, it is a neutral word for “plan” or “project”. The writer of the article had been using the word simply as a synonym for project.
Yet, after sharing the article on the Global Jewish Pen Pal Program Instagram page, it was not long before the first comment appeared asking about the usage of the word “scheme”.
I suddenly realized that this was a great lesson in considering the source and pausing to think about how something can be perceived in different places around the world. The purpose behind the Global Jewish Pen Pal Program is to try and get people to think from perspectives other than their own, and I learned that this can be demonstrated in all kinds of forms—even from something as small as a single word.
3) It’s the simple things that make a connection
As a way to engage more people in learning about Jewish life around the world, I developed a radio show called “The Pen Pal Perspective” which each month brings global Jewish pen pals on the show as guests to discuss Jewish life in their countries. A large part of the show is music. Each episode I task the guests with deciding on a song that both they and their pen pal like. For instance, on one episode pen pals had to decide together on a song that they liked that best represented “community”.
I am always impressed when the pen pals share their songs; they always have a song ready and with a creative explanation of why they chose it. I figured this “task” would be a hard one. How do you even start to narrow down all the songs in the world to a song that you and your pen pal across the globe both know?
It turns out that finding music both pen pals like, is a great conversation starter.
The global Jewish pen pals have bonded over the simple things: music and food are two favorite topics amongst them. No matter how they practice Judaism, where they live, or what their political beliefs are, it is these basic topics that everyone loves which forms a strong, ongoing friendship.
4) You are never too young (or old) to have a pen pal
When I began the Global Jewish Pen Pal Program I purposefully made the decision not to limit who could participate in the program—any ages are welcome. Yet, even with this decision, I didn’t imagine I would get many people younger than high school signing up. What I’ve discovered is how innovative people can be.
People as young as four years old and as old as 87 years old have signed up for the program. A seven year old in Italy and an eight year old in Israel are writing handwritten letters back and forth to each other—in Hebrew. Similarly, a 23 year old in the USA and a 25 year old in Luxembourg write handwritten letters to each other in German. A 30 and 31 year old have weekly video calls every Sunday. And a pen pal in New Zealand gave her American pen pal a virtual tour of the green landscape of her country.
Turns out, no matter their age, people have found their own creative ways to communicate with their global Jewish pen pals and have had fun doing it.
5) People want to make friends in other countries
When people sign up to be matched with a global Jewish pen pal, one of the questions on the sign up form asks them to answer where they heard about the Global Jewish Pen Pal Program.
Increasingly, the answer has been “I searched Jewish pen pals on Google.”
This answer has definitely been the biggest surprise so far in running this organization. Sure, I wanted Jewish people across the world to connect with one another. But I didn’t realize how much other people wanted that too. Clearly, it is something that people have been thinking about to the point where they actively search for Jewish pen pals online. This realization is incredibly exciting. People want to make friends in other countries, they have just needed some guidance on how to meet people!
Also, contrary to society’s beliefs, this proves that the idea of having a pen pal is not dead. It is not just an old fashioned childhood pastime, but rather, it is quite wanted, quite needed and quite adapted in this day and age as well.
It is our natural tendency to assume that people do things the same way we do. Often, we don’t even pause to think about if someone, somewhere else would think about something in a different way—our ideas and methods are so engrained in us, that it simply is the way to think or act.
Since I became an advocate for global Jewish life one of the first things I learned was that the questions I ask about Jewish life in the United States should not be the same questions that I ask about Jewish life in other countries. The situation is different everywhere, and what is important for Judaism in the USA, where I live, is not necessarily what is important for Judaism elsewhere. I hoped that by matching people with global Jewish pen pals they would start to put themselves in the shoes of others and think from a different perspective.
Yet, my own perspective has also grown since I came into the “business of friendship matchmaking”. Instead of just reading articles and books, I am learning from the people themselves. The people I meet with, the pen pals who participate in the program, they are the ones who really create the Global Jewish Pen Pal Program. In just a short time I have already learned so much from my conversations with the pen pals and during my outreach to organizations in various countries. I am so thankful for all that this program has taught me and look forward to the many, many things it will continue to teach me in the future.