Picture it: Jenny, a secular Jew in Los Angeles, perhaps a Wexner Heritage alum, has a weekly online learning session with Orli, a religious Israeli who lives on a kibbutz, perhaps a Wexner Israel Fellowship alum. They are getting to know each other, and their appreciation for the differences and similarities between their lives grows deeper with each conversation. While studying Jewish philosophy online, the complexity and beauty of the Jewish people open before them as they learn the texts together.

Jewish life is flourishing in America, and in Israel, and in England, and in Argentina–but for the most part, the various communities don’t interact. Most Israelis, secular or religious, have never met a Reform rabbinical student. Most Americans don’t speak regularly with Jews in Europe, or even in the Galilee. I wanted to work on building a project where each individual relationship would serve as a point of connection between these communities — allowing the Jewish world to grow slightly closer — which is why I came to work at Mechon Hadar, now housing Project Zug.

Project Zug is built on the belief that through one-to-one learning, real and meaningful connections can form. A havruta is a relationship built over time. It is two people coming to together to learn from each other and from new and ancient Jewish texts and ideas. When a havruta works well, both partners come away slightly changed — with new perspectives and thoughts. Havruta learning has created and sustained lively Jewish culture and community for generations. Project Zug takes this powerful human tool and pairs it with the ease of modern internet video connections, to create bonds across the corners of the Jewish world.

Participants choose from a library of courses, each running 10-12 weeks. Havrutot (pairs) “meet” for 45 mins each week over Skype or Google Hangout, studying one double-sided and easy-to-access source sheet with 3-4 texts and guiding questions. Four high-quality 10 minute videos from faculty also punctuate the course. In keeping with the vision and goals of project, all materials are in Hebrew and English.

The project was founded in 2012 by Wexner Graduate Fellow Benjamin Ross (Class 24), a rabbinical student at HUC-JIR, and Hagit Bartov, Director of Midreshet, an Israel-based organization that promotes the study of Jewish wisdom in contemporary contexts. They met while Benjamin was studying in Israel, and continued to learn from each other by connecting through Skype conversations. This past June, the Board of Mechon Hadar –founded by three WGFA, Shai Held (Class 7), Ethan Tucker (Class 11) and Elie Kaunfer (Class 15) — voted unanimously to house Project Zug at Mechon Hadar. The project, now directed by me (also a Wexner Graduate Fellowship alum, Class 22)  maintains its own identity, but shares content, faculty and staff with Mechon Hadar.  With roughly half of the courses taught by Hadar Faculty, and half taught by other expert teachers and scholars, Project Zug is an international access point for compelling, high-quality traditional content as well as creative courses: there is an entire course on the music and life of Leonard Cohen, taught by Dr. Stephen Hazan Arnoff (also a WGFA, Class 13)!

Project Zug has secured lead funding support from UJA-Federation of NY ($170,000) and Maimonides Fund ($50,000). Supporters are excited about Project Zug’s use of the internet to form real relationships, and the project’s inherent scalability. With the goal of more than 5,000 learners in the next five years, Project Zug will be used by individuals as well as partner organizations, who can use the platform to connect their alumni and constituencies around the world (check out Hazon’s course on Shmita!).  

We invite you to be a part of this adventure and to consider collaborating with our efforts. I also thought it would be a wonderful way for Wexner alumni from different parts of the world, figuratively and literally, to connect with each other. If you’d like to find another Wexner alum to study with, please let me know. Click here to view our upcoming course offerings. How could Project Zug engage your synagogue community, your students or your alumni? Which course might you contribute? Let’s explore together.

Feel free to contact me with your ideas and questions or register now for our March learning cycle.

Rabbi Avi Killip serves as Director of Project Zug and Alumni Affairs at Mechon Hadar. Avi was ordained by Hebrew College’s pluralistic Rabbinical School in Boston. She is a Wexner Graduate Fellowship alum (Class 22) and holds a Bachelor’s and Master’s from Brandeis University in Jewish Studies and Women & Gender Studies. Avi has worked as a teacher and Jewish professional in two synagogues, an independent minyan, a mikveh, and a yeshiva.  She can be reached at avikillip@mechonhadar.org .