The Taub Center’s Herbert M. Singer Annual Conference

Watch the full conference:

In November 2021, The Taub Center held its 11th annual Herbert M. Singer International Conference: “Distance by Design: Opportunities and Implications for Israel.” Taub Center President Prof. Avi Weiss opened the conference with introductory remarks, followed by Board Member Michael P. Lustig and Jay H. Sandak, President of the Herbert and Nell Singer Foundation, which supports the annual conference. Keynote speaker Prof. Claude S. Fischer gave the first presentation, followed by a discussion led by Prof. Alex Weinreb, Research Director at the Center.

Prof. Claude Fischer from the University of California, Berkeley, spoke about changes in population movement over the past hundred years in the U.S. and in the West (click here for the power point presentation). Contrary to common belief that the 21st century is characterized by mass migrations of populations and a lack of roots, Prof. Fischer expressed an opposing view. He claimed that beginning in the second half of the 20th century people stayed close to home and families and tended not to go far away. From this historical perspective, Prof. Fischer examined the question of the quality of social relations in the technology era, and especially in the time of COVID-19. “When I think about the pandemic, I think of a giant, global experiment that is bigger than a geographic platform,” said Prof. Fischer. Possibilities for increased online interactions that emerged during the pandemic have assured the continuity of social connections and mitigated negative consequences like isolation and depression.

The next speaker was Asher Dolev, Acting CEO, Digital Israel National Bureau, National Digital Affairs Directorate. He spoke about the digitization processes of government offices, local authorities and public agencies in Israel to make services more accessible to the public. From the perspective of the Digital Israel National Bureau, COVID-19 spurred the digitization process for services in a variety of areas, like employment, education, and health.

The first panel discussion dealt with the impact of distance learning on the education system. Prof. (Emeritus) Zemira R. Mevarech of Bar-Ilan University’s School of Education, chaired the session. Other participants included Kobi Refaeli, Head of the Information Communication Technology (ICT) Department at the Ministry of Education; Bitia Malach, Founder and Principal, Bnot Yerushalayim Haredi School for girls; and Dr. Dalia Fadila, Founder of Q Schools network and Joint CEO of Atidna.

Prof. Mevarech discussed how education systems around the world, including Israel, have dealt with the COVID-19 pandemic. She presented current studies conducted in Israel on distance learning and teaching and the challenges facing teachers and students. She concluded with the questions facing the education system with the return to in-school learning: “We call it distance learning, which carries a connotation of alienation, distance, not being seen or heard. But the opposite is true. We see our students up close, face to face. Perhaps if we called it “close-up” learning, its conceptualization would be different.”

Kobi Refaeli presented the challenges that the Ministry of Education faced with the move to digital teaching during COVID-19 and the Ministry’s vision for the future: a hybrid model  based on an integrated approach to learning that allows continuous learning from anywhere with a focus on an individualized program of learning as a basis for innovative pedagogy (click here for the Hebrew presentation). Refaeli gave a brief history of hybrid digital learning before and during COVID-19. He addressed the Ministry’s challenges, its successes in adapting to digital teaching in a relatively short time, and the opportunities to bring new digital programs to fruition.

Dr. Dalia Fadila spoke about how the Ministry of Education dealt with COVID-19 in the Arab school system, focusing on how communities and schools dealt with implementing  and assimilating the Ministry’s emergency policies. She noted that the Arab education system was inundated with educational resources, such as courses and training in techno-pedagogy, computers and tablets, and online content, but due to the digital gap between the Arab education system and Arab households and those in the Jewish sector, the pedagogical opportunities were not fully taken advantage of.  She also described the difficulties of distance learning that Arab students experienced, with the change from the teacher as the central figure in a traditional environment to the student as the center of learning in a computerized environment. With deficits in the technical and cognitive skills necessary to make this switch, including the use of Zoom and computer presentations, time management, and problem-solving in both standard and computerized environments, Dr. Fadila claimed that since distance learning is essentially different from traditional learning, the ability of both students and teachers to internalize the pedagogical changes of the pandemic was only partial.

Bitia Malach, Founder and Principal of the B’not Yerushalayim School for Girls in Jerusalem, a National-Haredi school, presented the unique educational challenges that they faced with the move to online teaching. First, both in school and at home, teachers and students had no internet access, and there was a need to connect them as quickly as possible. Second, even the connection to the internet arouses suspicion – and often antagonism – among teachers’ and students’ families. Malach shared, “Today, to my delight, most of the staff and students are working in an online environment. Perhaps COVID-19 gave us the gift of this interesting catalyst known as computerization, which is now the basis for our work in preserving our Jewish values while advancing secular studies in the age of COVID-19.”

The second session dealt with the impact of remote work on the labor market, and was chaired by Prof. Daniel Hershkowitz, Civil Service Commissioner. Speakers were Attorney Mariam Kabaha, National Commissioner, Equal Employment Opportunities Commission in the Ministry of Economy and Industry; Attorney Michal Rimon, CEO of Access Israel; and Daniella Jawno, Senior Program Manager at JDC Israel-Tevet.

Prof. Daniel Hershkowitz discussed how the public sector has adapted to changes in work styles during the pandemic. While prior to this time period, the public sector maintained a clear division between the office and the home, forced employment flexibility during the pandemic has evolved into a managerial tool for public sector administrators.

Mariam Kabaha spoke about work from home in the public sector during the pandemic. Kabaha noted the clear advantages of employment flexibility in narrowing gender gaps and in hiring workers from the periphery, many of whom did not previously consider working in the public sector because of the toll of commuting. Additional advantages are savings to the employer and the environment. She also stressed the importance of ensuring that all workers have access to the infrastructure and tools necessary to work from home.

Michal Rimon, CEO of Access Israel, discussed how COVID-19 introduced new possibilities for integrating people with disabilities into the labor market. For years, lack of accessibility in work places and public transportation has presented a significant challenge to integrating people with disabilities into the labor market. COVID-induced office closures forced employers to come up with remote work solutions, which addressed accessibility challenges facing people with disabilities. Unfortunately, there were also negative implications for those with disabilities: they were often among the first employees to be put on unpaid leave, and the last ones to be brought back to work because of their tendency to be in high-risk groups. New accessibility obstacles also arose with remote work, such as the inaccessibility of websites, interfaces, and applications, along with meetings, training sessions, work stations, and equipment that are not adapted for those with disabilities.

Daniella Jawno discussed the implementation of remote work in large and small organizations. Although remote work has turned into a widespread practice, not all of the population has benefited from it and many businesses and organizations continued to work in their previous formats. The project “Remote,” launched by JDC-Tevet in collaboration with the government of Israel, offers organizational solutions to help manage the challenges presented by remote work, including the integration of diverse populations, output measurement, as well as tools and technology that are required for working remotely. The project offers solutions to turn challenges into tools that will be equally vital beyond the pandemic.

Prof. Linda Waite from the Sociology Department at the University of Chicago gave the second keynote speech on the impact of COVID-19 on health behaviors, medical treatments, and mental health. Waite, who is leading a research study on the social and health influence of COVID-19 on the 57- to 88-year-old population in the U.S., reported that there is a positive connection between physical proximity of family members and friends to reported happiness levels. The opposite is also true: a drop in physical meet-ups led to a rise in depression and isolation. This also led to a neglect of health, including postponing of medical treatments, and sometimes even adopting harmful health behaviors. The research also found that online platforms for social connection had no effect on this issue. “In setting policy in the battle against COVID-19, we need to consider the social and emotional price to be paid. Physical proximity is an essential part of the human experience and has no substitute.”

The third panel discussion was led by Prof. Nadav Davidovitch, Chair of the Taub Center Health Policy Program. The session dealt with the impact of remote medicine on the healthcare system. Participants in this session included Ayelet Grinbaum Arizon, Senior Deputy Director General for Strategic and Economic Planning in the Ministry of Health; Dr. Miri Mizrahi-Reuveni, Deputy CEO and Head of the Health Division at Maccabi Healthcare Services; and Prof. Salman Zarka, Head of Magen Israel (Chief COVID-19 Officer) and CEO, Ziv Medical Center.

Ayelet Grinbaum Arizon spoke about the influence of COVID on the future of the healthcare system, particularly on the digital healthcare system. She shared the perspective of patients, who are changing into consumers of digital healthcare services, and of caregivers, who are learning to provide their services to patients (click here for the Hebrew presentation). She presented the sharp rise following the epidemic in home hospitalizations and home care and the change in the nature of the Ministry of Health’s work during COVID, with certain players, such as local authorities, gaining in significance from a healthcare perspective during this time.

Dr. Miri Mizrahi-Reuveni talked about the Kupot Holim (HMOs) and how they dealt with the epidemic through home care and home hospitalization. In the past year and half, the Kupot Holim have become the major healthcare providers to address COVID-19 in Israel, in cooperation with local authorities and the army to provide the population with the correct response to the epidemic. The Kupot provided a variety of home treatments and care for patients, including home hospitalization, ventilators, at-home rehabilitation, and home hospice care. They challenged the classic hospitalization model. A combination of remote medical care with home hospitalization risk management is an efficient and effective solution, she concluded.

The final speaker at the conference, Prof. Salman Zarka, the Head of Magen Israel and CEO of Ziv Medical Center, shared his experiences dealing with the pandemic as the Chief COVID-19 Officer, and as the head of a medical center in the periphery. Prof. Zarka talked about remote medicine through home hospitalization and ambulatory services widely provided to the general public, both in mild COVID-19 cases, as well as in medium and more severe cases. He found that COVID-19 made many services accessible to the periphery by opening remote medicine solutions and combining them with hybrid (or in-person) treatment. Nevertheless, he stressed the gaps between care in the periphery and the center, which, in the absence of adequate digital infrastructures, are likely to increase.

Click here for speakers bios