Kulanu and Computer Technology
By Mili Leitner, Kulanu Communications Director
Since the end of the twentieth century, computer technology has spread throughout the world, profoundly affecting opportunities for Kulanu’s isolated, emerging, and returning communities. With Kulanu’s help, communities from Latin America to Africa have benefitted from online Jewish learning, access to resources which could help their communities, and improved communication with Kulanu and each other. Our emphasis on technology is due in large measure to the expertise and interest of Kulanu’s president, Harriet Bograd, who is constantly learning the newest online tools to meet the needs of our communities and to keep Kulanu running behind the scenes.
Harriet was an early adopter of technology, buying her first computer in 1983 and putting it to use in order to lead recruitment efforts for the Abraham Joshua Heschel School in New York City. By the mid-1990s, she was creating online mailing lists, including one on “nonprofit cyberaccountability” that advocated for people to view Form 990 of U.S. non-profit organizations on the internet. Harriet found herself coaching state regulators of charities on how to use email groups and to start using the internet.
When Harriet first got involved with Kulanu in 2001, she visited her daughter who was a volunteer teacher for Kulanu in a Jewish community in Sefwi Wiawso, Ghana. She brought a laptop computer and taught the community how to use basic software for Jewish and general learning. During this trip, Harriet spent a lot of time at the new computer, inviting anyone who was interested to join her and learn how to get the most from this new technology. Some community members went with her on a two-and-a-half hour journey to the city of Kumasi, the location of the nearest internet cafe. There, they created an email address for the community, as well a Yahoo group so that people who supported the community or who had visited could communicate with each other. (That group, bit.ly/ ghana-shalom-group, still exists today and now has 257 members.) Harriet also used the laptop to take minutes of the first meeting of a co-op for the community’s economic development projects. They needed to create this co-op in order to open a bank account. Since 2001, Kulanu has sent this community $56,000 from sales of their beautiful challah covers and tallitot (kulanuboutique.com/sefwi-wiawso-ghana). This business wouldn’t have been as successful without email communications.
In 2004, Harriet took her first trip to visit the Abayudaya, Uganda’s Jewish community, where she brought donated computers and accessories and taught interested community members how to use them. During a return trip in 2012, she led a technology workshop to ensure that the community would stay on top of technological developments and maintain their own computers. One of the attendees, Sadati Mulilo, became the director of the UTouch computer center in the main village of Nabugoye Hill. Sadati also directs the community’s Hadassah Elementary School computer lab, supported by Kulanu with the amazing leadership of Jerry Knoppow.
Two years ago, Kulanu facilitated conversions in Madagascar, and once again Harriet jumped at the opportunity to share her expertise. In contrast to the trips a decade earlier, a number of individuals in Madagascar already owned laptops and knew the basics of using technology. Harriet donated a Chromebook to Touv’yah, one of the community’s leaders, to help fulfill their goal of spreading the word about their new Jewish community. She then led a workshop with this goal in mind, focusing on using email, Facebook, YouTube, and Smugmug (the photo-sharing service that Kulanu uses). One of the attendees wanted to see how other communities around the globe had been inspired by Judaism, so Harriet showed them some of the original music coming out of Cameroon, Uganda, Zimbabwe, and Brazil’s Jewish communities. A workshop member told us that he also had written original liturgical music, and Josh Kristal, Kulanu’s volunteer videographer, filmed this man and his music, and we uploaded it to our Youtube channel. We now have a YouTube playlist called “Kulanu in Song” where everyone can experience these beautiful melodies (bit.ly/KulanuSong). Harriet recalls: “I gave up a day at a lemur park to lead this workshop, but it was one of my favorite days working with Kulanu!”
Progress in Kenya
Community leader Yehuda Kimani has worked with Kulanu to make computer technology an essential part of Jewish life in Kehilat Kasuku, a small
Jewish community established 15 years ago in Kenya’s central highlands. Sarapage Podolsky, who is featured in this issue’s Volunteer Spotlight (see the article immediately following this one), has played an important role in developing internet and technology literacy in this rural area.
Yehudah writes: “Before we knew Kulanu, there wasn’t any kind of advanced technology in the village. We had only a basic mobile phone that we used for writing emails and connecting with people via Facebook. But even to view or send photos, we had to travel 30 kilometers to the nearest town to use a computer with a better internet connection. This was tiring and time-consuming.”
When Harriet donated a laptop to Yehuda’s community, Kulanu helped choose a local internet service and has paid for their internet connection ever since. We also donated a printer and a camera.
Yehuda affirms that the internet has transformed the community’s ability to study texts and to learn about Jewish life. He can now use Skype, Facebook, email, Google Hangouts, and other software that require a strong internet connection, and he is in contact with other Jewish community leaders in remote places. He regularly emails us at Kulanu with updates and shares wonderful photos which he uploads directly to our specialized photo server. He is a master at using Facebook and has close to 3000 Facebook friends from around the world.
Yehudah, describing some of the ways his community has utilized access to the internet, states: “Kehilat Kasuku has been able to connect with a lot of people from around the world who have visited the community and helped in various ways–especially with Jewish education. This increased our fundraising capacity and allowed us to complete a library project to store the books that visitors have donated. Kulanu has been very helpful regarding technology for our community, and we are thankful and appreciate their work.”
In the Kulanu Office
Not only do we take technology around the world, we also work hard to share knowledge among our staff and volunteers. Earlier this year we unveiled our new website, which not only looks fresh and modern but also allows our staff to update it regularly without needing to learn special code. Just a couple of hours of training is enough to accomplish basic updating tasks.
We designed the new website with our partner communities in mind, making sure that it will work successfully even on computers in remote places that are slow to connect with the internet. A new “Jewish Online Resources” page is full of links to a wide variety of specific Jewish topics. We believe
that this will be useful for adults on the path to conversion, people returning to their Jewish roots, bar/bat mitzvah students, and anyone who wants to
add to their Jewish knowledge and practice.
We are delighted that spreading technology to our communities allows Kulanu leaders to work with our staff and volunteers around the globe to create links between “all of us.” One important way in which we do this is via international Skype conferences, when community leaders from around the globe come together a few times a year to discuss issues that are relevant to isolated, emerging, and returning communities. Often, board members, staff, interns, and volunteers join these conferences, as they offer opportunities for community leaders and Kulanu workers to virtually meet each other. A dedicated Facebook group run by Kulanu also allows community leaders to exchange ideas and information and to work directly with our staff.
We are exploring increased use of the internet for Jewish learning and to share news about Kulanu’s work. In 2016, President Harriet Bograd met with school children in Michigan via Skype to answer their questions about Kulanu, as part of their Purim mitzvah project. Recently, Kulanu Vice President Boni Sussman used Facebook Live to share a class taught by her husband, Rabbi Gerald Sussman. She announced the class on Facebook and more than 240 people viewed the class, including Kulanu friends from Nicaragua and Kenya.
How to Help
You can help the technology program in many ways. Volunteer “photography mentors” can help local leaders share their stories more effectively. We welcome donations to the Kulanu Technology Fund, or in-kind donations of electronics in excellent condition, including laptops, unlocked global smartphones, tablets, or digital cameras. To offer in-kind donations, please visit kulanu.org/ways-to-donate.
(See also companion article, Volunteer Spotlight: Sarapage Podolsky, Technology Director)