A few months into his rabbinical studies in Jerusalem in 2012, it struck Benjamin Ross how little Israelis seemed to know about American Jews like him.
At the same time, the second-year Hebrew Union College student was mulling over the fraught, distanced relationships American Jews have with Israelis.
“Many Americans have no concept of life beyond the conflicts,” he said. “And Israelis don’t have a real sense of what Judaism looks like in the U.S.”
Once he returned to New York, a lively Skype study session with an Israeli counterpart set off a lightbulb for Ross: Why not use the online video chat platform to connect Israelis and Americans through hevruta, the age-old Jewish tradition of studying in pairs?
The result, Project Zug, has already connected 200 American and Israeli Jews since launching in February 2013. The program’s scope is expanding to link Jews in Israel to those in Australia, Africa, Europe and South America. And within five years, Ross hopes to enlist more than 5,000 “students” in his bold hybrid of an ancient method and cutting-edge tools.
“The idea was to move Israelis and Americans into new relationships through online learning,” Ross, 41, said. “And through those relationships, we’re hoping to move people past preconceived ideas.”
The basis of Project Zug’s hevrutot is a library of online study materials curated by Midreshet, an Israel-based organization that promotes the study of “Jewish wisdom” in contemporary contexts. “Midreshet encourages relationship building through an enriching dialogue on Jewish culture,” said Erica Goldberg, its English content and community coordinator. “Until Midreshet co-founded Project Zug, we were mainly involved in nourishing this dialogue in Israel, but our dream has always been to expand this dialogue globally.”
With input from a high-profile team of “facilitators” — including director Basmat Hazan Arnoff, historian Jeremy Leigh, and Rabbi James Jacobson-Maisels, founder of Or HaLev – Center for Jewish Spirituality and Meditation — the two organizations launched a library of more than 200 courses, from “Stillness and Movement in Jewish History” to “Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel and the Roots of Activism.” A short streaming video accompanies each new study guide, which includes text excerpts and discussion questions. For one notable example in the latter course comes the question — quoting Heschel’s “Prophetic Inspiration in the Middle Ages” (1950) — “What do you think the phrase ‘at times, heaven and earth would kiss’ means?”