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?”
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.
Next for Project Zug: “significant investments” in technology, according to Ross. “Right now, we do most of the matching of students ourselves after people fill out forms. That’s not sustainable.” With regard to the project’s broader aims, Ross said, “We want to connect institutions as well as people. We’re aiming to help institutions find sister organizations as another component where people can engage.”
And while it is technology that is driving the project’s success, it’s also the project’s “biggest growth barrier,” Ross said. “We want to have a library with hundreds of courses — not just text, but movies, music, the whole spectrum. Everything will have a Jewish lens or component. It doesn’t have to be Torah or Talmud. We just need the right platform.”
In the meantime, it’s the age-old elements of the program that offer the biggest draw.
“It’s our tradition to sit face to face, across a table, and study text together,” said Ross, now in his third year of studies at HUC. “There’s no replacement for looking into someone’s eyes. They say 90% of communication is facial expression, and Jews are highly expressive. Being able to capture that is such a gift.”
Michael Kaminer is a frequent contributor to the Forward.