I was complaining the other day about the state of my conversations.
Granted, the pandemic has limited my ability to talk with anyone outside of work, besides the one person I share a household with. We Zoom with friends, which can be a lot more satisfying than I would have thought possible, but we often find ourselves covering a lot of the same ground: The Kids, Covid, You Know Who, What’s New On Netflix, and, because we’re Jews with AARP cards, Our Health.
What I miss are the kinds of conversations that offer what the jazz great Stan Getz called the “satisfaction of spontaneous interaction.” At their best, conversations should surprise us, or lead to new places, or at least keep me from rolling out my greatest hits list of never-fail anecdotes.
Lately, however, I’ve found the secret to excellent conversations: My son and I are studying Jewish text together over Zoom. A few months ago I signed us up for Project Zug, a program run by the New York-based Hadar Institute. The program pairs people around the country in havrutot, or study pairs, and offers at least 30 different curricula created by Hadar faculty and associates. They range from “Everyday Moral Dilemmas” and “The Death Penalty in The Talmud” to explorations of Jewish music and social justice.
We picked “How to Learn Midrash,” the rabbinic method for commenting and expanding on scripture. (A famous midrash is Moses burning his tongue on hot coals. It doesn’t appear in the Bible, but helps explain why he describes himself, in Genesis 4:10, as “slow of tongue.”) Since midrash is in some ways a form of literary criticism, it appealed to the English major in me. And I knew the topic would provoke my son, an engineer who used to complain in Jewish day school that the rabbis who wrote midrash were “just making it up!”
“Havruta” study usually means sharing a text, reading it closely and then picking it apart, often with questions supplied by a teacher – in this case, Amit Gvaryahu, a graduate student in Talmud at the Hebrew University. We’d read the story of, say, Abraham asking his wife to pose as his sister in a questionable scheme that nearly gets her raped by Pharaoh (Genesis 12:10-20). We’d look at the methods classical commentators used to read and interpret this morally troubling story, and our conversation would spin out from there. When is it okay to lie? How do you deal with a flawed role model? How would this story be told by Sarah?
They were exactly the kinds of conversations I was looking for, and apparently, I’m not alone.
“Particularly in this moment there has been this renewed need for real authentic human connection, and we have a tool that does exactly that,” Allie Conn Kanter, Hadar’s director of engagement and the director of Project Zug, told me. “Havruta is a really powerful tool and experience. When people say they want to have deep conversations with each other they often don’t know how to begin. Digging into text allows people to better understand the person they are working with and themselves.”
Project Zug was founded in 2012 by Rabbi Benjamin Ross, then a rabbinical student at Hebrew Union College, and Hagit Bartuv, the former director of Midreshet, a Jewish-Israeli online learning platform. Hadar took it over in 2014. Kanter works with communities to create programming around the Zug curricula, in addition to matching learners who either come as a pair or ask to be matched with a compatible stranger.
Havruta is a really powerful tool and experience. When people say they want to have deep conversations with each other they often don’t know how to begin.
Kanter says enrollment among online learners more than doubled from 1,100 in 2019 to 2,300 in 2020, no doubt due to the pandemic. “Project Zug is meant to be a relationship-building tool. Havruta learning is a mechanism to connect people who may not be able to come into contact with each other otherwise,” she said.
That’s certainly true of my son and me: I live in New Jersey, and he lives in San Diego. I’ve seen him in person just once since last March. We FaceTime as a family, but there’s something special about an hour or two just to ourselves, chatting about nothing and everything, and using Jewish text as a springboard for spontaneous interaction. And I am sure he is relieved that I am not using the time to demand that he move back to the east coast already.
Project Zug is launching two new learning cycles on Feb. 28, a four-part series anticipating Passover and a spring schedule of its regular courses. You can go at your own pace, but the program encourages you to keep up with other people taking the courses and share on community bulletin boards.
Project Zug isn’t the only online Jewish learning program. (Earlier this week, My Jewish Learning offered Havruta Roullette, a chance to study the daily page of Talmud with a randomly selected partner.) And you don’t need a formal program to connect with a partner. All you need is a good text – Jewish or not – a good friend, and a good internet collection. The rest is up to you and your partner.
Andrew Silow-Carroll (@SilowCarroll) is the editor in chief of The Jewish Week.