Reinventing the Lunch & Learn: Hillel Ezra Fellows use Online Learning as Professional Development

project-zugBy Rabbi Avi Killip

“Hey! That’s my Zug!” – one Ezra fellow cheers for another, during an evening of karaoke. “Zug” is Hebrew for partner, and he is referring to his “havruta,” his learning partner in an online Jewish learning platform called Project Zug. The pair of young professionals are part of a cohort of Ezra Fellows, a group of early career Hillel engagement professionals from around the country who are committed to growing as Jewish educators.

Ezra Fellows begin their learning with a two-day August intensive with teachers from Mechon Hadar. They then maintain their connections to one another and to Jewish learning through ongoing weekly learning with Project Zug. Project Zug’s online platform allows the fellows to continue to grow together throughout the year, by learning in pairs over video chat.

The enthusiasm for their learning is palpable. The fellows describe the value of always having some Jewish wisdom in their back pocket, and speak personally about what it feels like to develop identities as perpetual learners. In addition to the educational enrichment, the pairs have developed meaningful friendships that strengthen both their learning, and their professional investment in their work. Molly Cram of American University Hillel described the ways that the Ezra fellowship transformed her work as an engagement professional, and added “All of this happens because we’re always learning.”

Why has Project Zug been so effective for the Ezra Fellows? Here are five answers:

1. Empowered learning: Project Zug offers 20 different courses, on a variety of topics. Each fellow chose what they wanted to learn. Some love to discuss philosophy, others love culture. Some were curious what Judaism has to say about wealth and money, while others wanted to peek inside the Talmud for the first time. The variety of courses encouraged the fellows to follow their own curiosity – this autonomy over their learning has led to remarkable investment, and follow-through.

2. Flexible timing: Each course was assembled by a different master teacher, and consists of pre-recorded videos and source sheets with questions for discussion. The pre-recorded content is higher quality than a webinar, and allowed participants to learn on their own schedule. The night owls could learn together at 9pm. Those with a slow hour in their afternoon around 3pm used that time to learn. The one-on-one nature of the learning meant that each fellow only had to work with one other person’s schedule, and if a conflict came up, they could always reschedule. Jake Campbell of Florida State University Hillel and Arielle Weil of Muhlenberg Hillel reported that Project Zug learning has been a highlight of their week. Although they plan for Tuesdays, with their ever-changing schedules, they move their learning into a different time slot each week.

3. Maintain long distance relationships: The Ezra cohort maintained strong relationships throughout the year, despite being spread across the continent. By removing geographic limitations, online learning allowed colleagues in different parts of the North America to connect regularly in a meaningful, personal way. When Arielle Greenwald of Drexel Hillel and Danielle Natelson from UCLA Hillel got up to sing a karaoke duet at a recent Ezra training (these two are shockingly talented singers!), they proudly introduced themselves as a “former havruta.”

4. Peer mentoring: One of the key components of the Ezra fellowship is the creation of a cohort of individuals who have similar jobs and similar goals, on different campuses. Their one hour calls allow them 45 min of learning, with 15 min of check-in about their work. How many people do you know if the Jewish world who have a similar role to yours? How often do you actually talk to them about the work? Having a peer mentor, a havruta, helped each of the fellows to stay motivated and know someone else is “cheering” for them.

5. Personal growth: How do we offer Jewish learning experiences that actually shape the professional? Can Jewish learning really be “professional development”? Even the best lunch & learn is a one-off experience that is unlikely to have any long-term impact on a professional. Weekly one-on-one learning offered Ezra fellowship participants real professional, personal, and sometimes even spiritual development. When learning becomes a practice, a regular part of your week, it means you are always thinking and your Judaism is always developing.

We’re excited by the ways that the Ezra Fellows’ learning cuts across boundaries: personal and professional development, social and content, engagement and education. As the lines separating our different roles and relationships become ever-more blurred, we think that leveraging the internet for high-quality, high-relationship Jewish learning will be an important part of all Jewish professional work – as it already is for the Ezra fellows.

Rabbi Avi Killip is Director of Project Zug at Mechon Hadar, and host of the podcast Responsa Radio.

The Ezra Fellowship is supported in part by the Maimonides Fund.