When Billy Planer saw a call for ELI Talks’ Speaker Fellowship last spring, he knew he had to apply.
Planer, the founder of Etgar 36, a Jewish program that engages teenagers on the important issues of the day through the lens of civil rights history, said he experienced a roller coaster of emotions from the time he started the ELI fellowship to the moment he stepped in front of the camera to give his talk at the Breman Museum in Midtown in the fall.
From start to finish, he said, participating in the ELI Talks Speaker Fellowship was a valuable experience, and he recommends that anyone else with a special Jewish idea should apply.
Originally imagined as the Jewish version of TED Talks, ELI Talks leverages digital technology to create online Jewish discourse. The fellowship brings together new Jewish voices from across North America to present their “inspired Jewish ideas” to a larger audience.
Talks are videotaped and placed on ELI’s website (elitalks.org), where anyone is free to watch and weigh in.
After being accepted into the program, participants spend close to six months working with professional coaches and the ELI staff to refine their speeches, which they then present in front of a live crowd at the end of the fellowship.
The ELI Talks experience also is enriching for the community hosting the presentations. ELI Talks worked with the Jewish Federation of Greater Atlanta to present three nights of speakers at the Breman, all open to the public. In addition to Planer, Dena Schusterman, Ilana Kurshan, Madison Jackson, Samantha Hauptman, Sara Kupfer and Tzivie Pill, Aharon Ariel Lavi, Dovid Bashevkin, David Gottlieb, Moshe Hecht, Rabbi Zelig Golden, Bradley Caro Cook, Jhos Singer, Lauren Tuchman, Sharon Weiss-Greenberg and Susan Horowitz spoke.
When ELI Talks “approached me about partnering, I didn’t hear partnership; I heard gift,” Federation CEO and President Eric M. Robbins said.
“I heard, ‘We want to bring some of the most innovative, creative, inspiring Jewish thinkers who aren’t the typical Jewish thinkers to your community, and we want to activate Jewish thinkers that live within your community to give them the tools to present what they know.’ That’s a gift.”
With ELI Talks preparing to reveal this year’s fellows, Planer spoke about what participants can expect to experience and gain, personally and professionally, based on his participation.
Planer had spent years talking about Etgar 36 by the time he was accepted to ELI but came into the program ready to expand on his familiar pitch. Like most fellows, Planer added the training and preparation to a long list of responsibilities, but he said the time and effort were a worthwhile investment.
“It was a tremendous experience from top to bottom, filled with the entire emotional range of excitement to do it and then feeling like ‘Do I really want to put the work in?’ because it coincided with a 36-day summer program that I run for teenagers going across America,” Planer said.
While running his teen program, “I had to have phone consultations with the performance coach they give you. But I have got to say, looking back, like anything that requires effort, it was really worth it,” he said. The training “made me expand my abilities and challenge myself in ways that I normally wouldn’t.”
Planer said one of the most valuable parts of the experience was the direct mentorship he received from Mary Rubenstein, ELI Talks’ director, who helped infuse Jewish text and ideas into his talk in ways that Planer said he would not have considered on his own.
“Mary really challenged me and actually spent time learning text with me that could be applicable to what I was doing,” he said.
Normally, “that’s not what I do,” Planer said. “This didn’t feel initially comfortable, but (Rubenstein) made me see that, yes, I can still be authentically me and stay true to my message” while incorporating complex Jewish ideas and texts.
“Now I have even more tools in my toolkit to bring out,” he said.
“What I love about Billy is that he presented us with an idea — the idea of holding space to have conversations between people who hold opposing views — that was obviously born out of his Jewish experiences, but he was entirely insistent that it wasn’t,” Rubenstein said about working with Planer.
“I so enjoyed learning texts with him that, yes, added sources and depth to his talk, but, more importantly, that gave him a healing experience and allowed him to come to Judaism on his own terms and allow him to own the role it has played in his history, in his present and in his inspired Jewish idea,” she said.
In addition to forming relationships with the ELI team, Planer developed a sense of community with the other fellows. His cohort included 17 participants.
ELI this year will welcome 15 new fellows, who will present their talks in Detroit.
While the 2017 fellows were spread across the country, they created virtual connections before coming together in Atlanta to give their talks.
“For the most part, (the fellowship) is about individual effort, but you know you have a cohort out there that is also doing the work. So on Facebook and email, we created a community,” Planer said.
By the time the night of his presentation rolled around in the first week of September, Planer was ready to take the makeshift stage in the middle of the Breman’s exhibit on the history of the Jewish Educational Loan Fund.
“Like any time you get in front of the audience, the adrenaline rush was the culmination of a lot of hard work,” Planer said. Leading up to that moment, “the support given by the ELI Talks staff, from Mary to the coaches, was tremendous.”
Planer’s 10-minute talk focuses on the importance of exposing Jewish youths to a diversity of opinions and experiences to prepare them to become the next generation of informed and thoughtful leaders. It starts with the crash of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, in 1988.
“The basis of the talk is something I’ve been working on for years — it’s what I do — so what ELI Talks really challenged me to do was to bring even stronger Jewish content to the talk that I usually give,” Planer said.
His talk has been viewed more than 1,500 times since being posted late in 2017, and Planer said that audience is in part the result of ELI Talks’ promotional efforts after uploading the video.
“The promotion of my talk was tremendous,” he said. The ELI Talks staff “posted and made the general public aware of the talk. They did a great job of that. I was leading a group trip for a synagogue about a month ago and someone said, ‘I have seen your talk. I know you.’”
On a professional level, participating in ELI Talks promoted the Etgar 36 brand and exposed Planer and his initiatives to a wider audience than he generally would have reached on his own.
On a personal level, Planer said he grew and is now armed with a finely tuned pitch he is ready to give to any audience.
“The results are worth the effort and any trepidation or questions you might have. You get pushed and challenged and supported in so many great ways. You walk away, A, with a talk you can give to anybody and any time, and, B, you are challenged and pushed in ways that we might not do ourselves. But there’s tremendous support behind us.”