By Stacey Dresner
SPRINGFIELD – In Judaism there is a long history of studying Torah in groups, often pairs of students learning together. These groups, or hevruta – meaning fellowship – are said to enhance and enrich study through dialogue and the sharing of additional viewpoints.
“Judaism and Jewish tradition has very little in it that happens alone,” says Rabbi James Greene. “Even when we pray, we pray together. When we eat, there is a special blessing when we eat with other people. We recognize that community is at the center of Jewish life and so even in learning, there is this belief that we learn best when we learn with other people.”
The idea of hevruta learning, Rabbi Greene says, came about very early in rabbinic tradition.
“There are dozens of examples of hevruta pairs, most often pairs that disagree vehemently about every aspect of Jewish life,” he said. “I think of folks like Hillel and Shammai, who were two schools of learning that were on opposite sides of every issue that they thought about, but that really improves the learning in Jewish tradition.”
Starting this December, SAJE, the Springfield Alliance for Jewish Education, will continue this long rich learning tradition with Project Zug.
“When we started [SAJE] we wanted to bring the community together to do adult education and recognized that we were getting a lot of crossover. Each community was doing a Hebrew class. Each community was doing a Torah study class; there were lots of similaries. So we believed and continue to believe that working together is both the most efficient way and also the best way forward for the community. Project zug ius meant to help bolster that by offering the opportunity for people to do Jewish learning together in hevruta — in pairs.”
“Zug” is Hebrew for partner, and through Project Zug Jewish learners in Springfield will be matched with study partners locally, or from around the United States, or in Israel or other countries, who have similar interests and who want to pursue the same course of study.
Study partners can choose from more than 30 courses available; courses like “Kashrut: Why? What? How?” “The Death Penalty in the Talmud,” “the Wisdom of Shabbat: A Modern Israeli Perspective,” and “Bob Dylan: A Jewish Journey Between Home and Exile.”
“Because it has more than 30 different classes that you can choose from, and new classes are being added every season, it allows learners to really guide their own learning process and choose a topic that meets their needs,” Rabbi Greene explained.
Project Zug is a program of Hadar Institute which “empowers Jews to create and sustain vibrant, practicing, egalitarian communities of Torah, Avodah, and Hesed.”
“Having a partnership with Hadar allows us to do registration at a time that works for us, it makes it less expensive for our learners to participate in the program, and it also provides us with some access to different kinds of classes,” Rabbi Greene says. “People can come with their own partner, and if they don’t have a partner it allows us to help arrange a partner Project Zug partners connect online via Skype or Google Hangout for weekly 30- to-40-minute courses that run for 10 weeks.
Project Zug courses are “facilitated” by Jewish educators such as Rabbi Ethan and Rabbi Elie Kaunfer, bopth of Hadar, Dr. Meir Buzaglo of Hebrew University, and Dr. Stephen Hazan Arnoff of the Fuchsberg Jerusalem Center, among others.
The facilitators introduce courses through a 20-minute video, then study partners get to work on study sheets featuring texts and questions.
Rabbi Greene praised Project Zug’s flexibility.
“It allows us to meet people at their point of availability as opposed to requiring that they come to the JCC or a particular synagogue and learn. Project Zug can happen if you are in Florida visiting family or if you winter down there. You can still learn because Project Zug has an online platform where you can choose to learn with your partner who may be here in Western Mass. If you are travelling for business or on vacation, you can still get on your computer and participate in learning with your study partner. And you can choose a schedule that is convenient. You can learn every week for 5 or 6 weeks, or every other week. You can learn once a month. There is really a lot of flexibility with the program.”
The idea to bring Project Zug to Springfield came through discussions by the SAJE organizational committee.
SAJE, a collaboration of all of the synagogues in the lower Pioneer Valley, the Springfield Jewish Community Center and the Jewish Federation of Western Mass., was founded two years ago to enhance adult Jewish education in the area.
Last winter SAJE ran a program called the Shuk that was very successful.
“It was a time for folks to get together on a Saturday night,” Rabbi Greene said. “We made havdallah, there was food and then some cultural classes…It was well received and a chance for folks to do something outside of their norm. We will do something like that again in February.”
But despite that program’s success, the SAJE committee last year began looking for new and more innovative ways to facilitate Jewish learning.
“We talked about wanting to experiment in the coming year,” Rabbi Greene said. “Something which was raised by folks on the SAJE committee was this idea of really wanting to focus on individualized learning experiences. The idea that people sometimes don’t want to come to a large program about a particular topic, but they might be really passionate about learning something, and that we weren’t making space for people to explore their own learning interests. We were trying to guide that process for them.”
Susan Firestone, a member of the SAJE committee and a board member of the Hadar Institute had participated in Project Zug as a student and she share that experience with her SAJE colleagues.
“She was super passionate about this and when she shared her excitement for this program I think the rest of the committee jumped on board really quickly because we saw the potential for it to be a success here in Springfield,” Rabbi Greene said.
SAJE will kick off registration for Project Zug in December around Chanukah time, Rabbi Greene said.
“We think that by connecting it to Chanukah, we are thinking about how we can rededicate ourselves to learning in the next year and thinking about our learning as an opportunity to bring more light into the world.”
For more information contact Rabbi James Greene at (413) 739-4715.