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Using Project Zug is straightforward; after registering, signing in and creating a profile, users choose a course from the library. “All of them are rated, as if you were cruising Yelp for a restaurant review,” Ross said. Based on areas of interest, the amount of time available to study, and other criteria, Ross and his small team match up students for their Skype hevruta sessions. The paired discussions play out over 12 weeks; fees range from $36 to $72, based on a “pay-what-you-can” model, Ross said.
Participants have come equally from Orthodox, Conservative, Reform and “secular” Jewish backgrounds; the pairings have been revelatory, Ross said. “We’ve had 80-year-olds pair with 20-year-olds, and Jews from all religious backgrounds connect,” he said. “When you’re studying with other people, you don’t just study what’s in the page. You also learn what’s in the heart. You get to learn the text, but also the person on the other side.”
For Honey Amado, a Reform Jewish lawyer in Beverly Hills, Calif., the study sessions with Noach Hayuit, an Orthodox Israeli, gave her “a greater appreciation for the wide range of thinking within the Orthodox community — much more nuanced and varied than the broad strokes of Haredi, hasidic, Orthodox or Modern Orthodox,” she said.
But the biggest surprise was that her “partner was an Orthodox man who would study with [her],” Amado said. “And that Noach is concerned as I am about issues of Jewish pluralism in Israel.”
Rabbi Dorothy Richman, leader of Makor Or: Jewish Meditation in Berkeley, Calif., was paired with a partner whose differences included “language, gender, age, nationality, and profession.” But, she said, “We met at the text, and our conversations were stimulated by those differences. As a Californian who tries to practice and teach mindfulness, it was wonderful to be challenged by someone who wasn’t convinced of its virtues.”
On Project Zug’s first run of 50 pairings, 47 completed the process — a “surprisingly” high retention figure, Ross said. “Online universities have high dropout rates.”
The project’s initial success won a $3,500 seed-funding infusion through HUC’s Be Wise Entrepreneurial Grants Competition and a $70,000 grant from UJA-Federation in 2013. “This is the first time that UJA-Federation of New York’s Commission on the Jewish People is funding an online learning platform, and we feel that Project Zug’s innovative and novel approach to online Jewish learning could be a model that can be replicated,” said Ari Rudolph, the planning executive in charge of the commission.
UJA is monitoring results as it weighs more funding for the program. “We believe strongly that online or virtual connections can be fostered that unite Jewish communities and Jewish individuals around the world,” Rudolph said.
Midreshet’s Goldberg agreed. “We believe that establishing bonds between different segments of the Jewish people, based on a shared ancient heritage, is essential for the continuity of the Jewish people and its culture,” she said.