Rockets were falling in Israel. Missiles were landing in Gaza. It was the fall of 2012, and I was Skyping with my Israeli friend Rivki. “Was the country rallying behind Netanyahu or frustrated by his actions?” I asked. Rivki answered, “Yes, everyone is behind him, total support. The left is furious because he attacked Gaza and the right is irate that he isn’t sending in troops.”
I was not privy to this kind of conversation before living and studying in Israel and becoming friends with Israelis. But the seeming messiness of Rivki’s response – “total support” of Netanyahu coupled with furious opposition — is what makes Israel real for me. Too often in the U.S. we are asked to choose a side, and not to connect with people. At Project Zug, an initiative to connect Israeli Jews with Jews from America and around the world through hevruta, we hope to transcend side-choosing politics to cultivate these kinds of relationships and foster such conversations. Hevruta study is the traditional way that Jews learn: in pairs. Jewish learning is not frontal, not info-tainment, it checks for understanding and empowers the learner by holding them responsible at every moment to process and then discuss and explore what they have learned.
The vision for Project Zug emerged during my experiential learning at HUC-JIR in Israel. We crisscrossed the country, conversed with elected officials, learned from academics, and argued with activists and settlers, and, through it all, ideas emerged, evolved, and gelled. The dynamism of Jewish life in Israel and the complexity of governing a Jewish democratic state came to be something personal. For me, clarity only emerged through relationships with Israelis, hearing their stories and learning about their culture. I knew then I wanted to connect Israelis and Americans, but was unsure how to do it.
At the same time, I noticed many Israelis we met seemed to have a snapshot of American Judaism circa 1983. They did not know of the dynamism of Jewish life in America. The continuum between secular and religious in the U.S. is rife with options. In the U.S., one has to choose to be Jewish. When you leave shul in NYC on Yom Kippur, you walk out into Lincoln Center or into the hustle and bustle of any given day of the week. In Israel, just being a Jewish Israeli is enough. Almost everyone serves in the army, buses stop or slow down on Shabbat, and Jewish-owned businesses are closed on Yom Kippur.
Project Zug is dedicated to creating, renewing, and strengthening the bonds between these different Jewish communities. It is built on the principle that change occurs through personal relationships. We use the traditional Jewish vehicle of hevruta – one-on-one learning – to develop and deepen these connections. Taking advantage of current communications technologies, Project Zug brings Jews in Israel and around the world together, face-to-face online, to meet one another and explore their distinct and common heritages through studying topics of shared interest. Project Zug’s dedication to developing partnerships between Israelis, Americans, Britons, Argentinians, Australians, and many others, is reflected in its collaboration with Midreshet – the website of the Israeli Beit Midrash Network, and Project Zug’s partner in operations.
In May 2013, Project Zug completed a pilot run with 50 Israelis and 50 American Jews. Project Zug is in the midst of recruiting participants for its second round, which is set to begin in mid-January 2014. As we continue to test, reflect, and learn, we hope to expand our reach to thousands of Jews in the U.S., Israel, and around the world. I encourage you, as Jewish leaders, to take a personal challenge and deepen both your Jewish learning and your relationships with an Israeli or North American, and join our ranks. Please join us at www.ProjectZug.org or contact me personally for more information.
Benjamin Ross is a rabbinical student at HUC-JIC New York and a current Wexner Graduate Fellow, Class 24. Benjamin is director of Project Zug, an online startup funded by the UJA – Federation of New York and the Jewish Agency for Israel. Benjamin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.