This is the first in a short series of posts by the participants of the Be Wise Entrepreneurial Grants Competition which took place on the New York campus during the 2012-13 academic year in celebration of the ninetieth anniversary of the founding of the Jewish Institute of Religion by Rabbi Stephen S. Wise and the Free Synagogue. The project urged students to “Be Wise“–to think imaginatively in relation to the needs of our contemporary Jewish community, and dare to make real their own vision for liberal Judaism of the twenty-first century…
Rockets were falling in Israel, missiles were landing in Gaza. It was the fall of 2013, back in NYC from our first year of school studying in Israel, and I was skyping with my Israeli friend Rivki. There was a cease fire in Israel between Israel and Hamas and I asked what was going on, “Was the country rallying behind Netanyahu or frustrated by his actions?” Rivki responded, “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.”
This is the conversation I was not privy to before living in Israel and becoming friends with Israelis. The messiness of the conversation is what makes Israel real for me and a place of hope and potential. Too often in the U.S. we are asked to choose a side, and not to connect with people. The Be Wise grant provided critical support for the pilot round of Project Zug, an initiative to connect Israeli and American Jews through hevruta.
The vision for Project Zug emerged during our experiential learning at HUC-JIR in Israel. We crisscrossed Israel, conversed with elected officials, journalists, academics, argued with academics, activists, and settlers, and ideas emerged, evolved, and gelled. The dynamism of Jewish life in Israel and the complexity and responsibility of governing a Jewish Democratic state came to be something personal. For me, clarity only came 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 an image of Judaism in the U.S. 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 thick with options. In the U.S., you have to choose to be Jewish. In Israel, just being a Jewish Israeli is enough. Almost everyone serves in the army, buses stop or slow down on Shabbat, and all Jewish business are closed on Yom Kippur. In the U.S. when you leave shul in NYC on Yom Kippur you often walk out into Lincoln Center or into wherever-Christian-nation with the hustle and bustle of any-given day of the week.
Project Zug is a dedicated to creating, renewing, and strengthening the bonds between the American and Israeli Jewish communities. Project Zug 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 the United States together, face-to-face on-line, to meet one another and explore their distinct and common heritage and identity through studying topics of interest. Project Zug’s dedication to developing partnerships between Israelis and Americans is modeled in its own work within its partnership with Midreshet – the website of the Israeli Beit Midrash Network, a UJA-Federation.
In May 2013 Project Zug completed a pilot run with 50 Israelis and 50 American Jews. As we continue to test and reflect and learn, we hope to expand the reach to thousands of Jews in the U.S., Israel and around the world. Please join us at www.ProjectZug.org.
Ben Ross, and his partner in this project, Adam Lutz, are rising third year Rabbinical Students on the New York Campus. They continue to work diligently on Project Zug and plan to expand the program significantly in the coming year.