The excitement was great. The meeting between young people from the cities of Rishon LeZion and Hamburg was supposed to take place in spring 2020. The group from Israel was ready to travel. This made it even more disappointing, when the physical meeting had to be canceled due to the Corona pandemic.
Changing directions spontaneously. But the challenging situation should not mean that the young people would not meet on any path this year. The municipality of Rishon LeZion and the social authority of the city of Hamburg (Department of Labor, Health, Social Affairs, Family and Integration) reacted to the new situation with a flexible solution: they invited the young people to an online exchange. Since the young people already had the opportunity to develop first bilateral contacts beforehand, the excitement to meet online was huge and the group was full of enthusiasm to make the best out of the situation.
So far and yet so close. Five versatile meetings were organized on Zoom, each of them providing an entertaining hour and a half for the young people to get to know each other in a playful way and to find space for inspiring conversations. The meetings focused on a personal perspective on the history and past of both countries: This allowed the young people to explore their own roots and family histories.
Interactive, creative, personal. In order to create a familiar atmosphere despite the physical distance, the group was often split into small groups in which they had the chance to talk in an intimate setting. By using interactive tools, the participants were able to write, draw and brainstorm together – this way, they created an active teamwork that resulted in a successful community project.
In the course of the meetings, the students repeatedly expressed the desire for an additional space for informal exchange. A feature that arises almost by itself during physical encounters due to breaks, time spent on the way, and gap periods in between. So it was decided to offer the young people additional opportunities to meet in the evening hours, in which they could participate on a voluntary basis. Sometimes they met for dinner together and sometimes for watching a movie or listening to music.
Digital exchange: not a substitute, but an addition. The organizers Meyrav Kopito from Rishon LeZion and Rainer Schwart from Hamburg hope that the encounters will take place physically and on site again in the near future. After all, they say, digital exchange can never replace real encounters between people.
Nevertheless, there are some digital components that will remain in use even after the pandemic: The virtual space can be a suitable place to meet for preparations before the physical exchange begins. An initial digital meeting can help to reduce fears, pressure and uncertainties before the trip. Wishes, hopes and expectations for the exchange can be discussed and clarified in advance. It is also easier to involve parents and other family members in the exchange right from the start. In addition, digital formats can also be used for an in-depth evaluation after the exchange.
The future is hybrid. Meyrav Kopito and Rainer Schwart are convinced that the young people - intentionally or unintentionally - have developed new communicative online skills in the course of the pandemic, which have opened up new opportunities for them to meet. In her opinion, the expansion of exchanges into the digital space has created a valuable venue that will remain a fruitful addition to physical exchange projects even in post-Corona times.