Nonprofits use tech to match study partners on hows, whys of Shabbat unplugging

Partners in Torah and the Shabbat Project join forces, offering Jews worldwide a chance to ‘meet their match’ and learn about the day of rest for three weeks online

Shoshanna Solomon is The Times of Israel's Startups and Business reporter

Illustrative. Shabbat candlesticks. (Yaakov Naumi/Flash90)
Illustrative. Shabbat candlesticks. (Yaakov Naumi/Flash90)

The daily study of the Torah, or the holy scriptures, is a pillar of Judaism, as is the observation of the Sabbath as a day of rest to reconnect with family, friends and faith. Now, two initiatives that seek to boost the two ancient practices are merging forces for three weeks to bring the study of the Sabbath to Jews worldwide with a little help from technology.

Partners in Torah — a nonprofit organization that has been setting up one-on-one connections between people to study Torah and Judaism for nearly 30 years — will be joining forces with the annual Shabbat Project to offer participants the opportunity to learn about the significance of the day of rest with another Jew, 30 minutes a week for three weeks online, using a new matchmaking platform to find the perfect partner.

Partners in Torah recently upgraded its “matchmaking” abilities with the help of entrepreneur Moe Mernick, its chief operating officer.

Mernick, who worked for five years in a variety of technology startups in Israel, joined Partners in Torah 15 months ago to spearhead a digital transformation, set up strategic partnerships and increase global reach.

A Shabbat Project challah bake at the Heller JCC in Chicago. (Courtesy)

“For many years, the nonprofit was working as traditional matchmakers do,” Mernick said in a phone interview. It asked participants whom they wanted to study with, what their key interests were, and what they were looking for in their study partner.

“There were a lot of matches happening,” said Mernick, but the process was inefficient and lengthy.

Mernick and his tech team set up an algorithm – a smart platform – that analyzed the information available and presented a perfect match. “We have an 89% satisfaction” rate, he said, and the organization “has quadrupled the number of people who have joined the program.”

The organization has already matched over 76,000 men and women in 29 countries for one-on-one study partnerships, either by phone or video conferencing.

And as the coronavirus struck globally, participants have said that the study platform has help them create meaningful Jewish connections and relationships at a time of increased isolation and loneliness, Mernick said.

Partners in Torah now hopes to expand its scope even further, by joining forces with the the Shabbat Project, an annual global initiative that aims to get Jews to celebrate the biblical day of rest by unplugging for a day and avoiding certain activities proscribed by the Torah.

South African chief rabbi Dr. Warren Goldstein at the Johannesburg, South Africa challah bake in 2017. (Courtesy)

The project was launched by South African Chief Rabbi Warren Goldstein in 2013 and quickly snowballed in popularity. It has been celebrated in over 1,600 cities around the world. This year, the Shabbat Project, will begin sundown on Friday, November 6 and last for 25 hours until the conclusion of the Jewish day of rest.

Because of coronavirus restrictions, participants will need to adapt, holding pre-Shabbat events like virtual challah bakes, online classes about Shabbat, cooking webcasts and virtual synagogue tours. On the weekend itself, participants will be encouraged to “bring Shabbat home.”

Because of the coronavirus pandemic, and the fact that the generally live events will not take place, Partners in Torah decided to offer a solution of a “virtual, 3-week mega event for individuals around the world to connect, grow and learn more about Shabbat, together,” using the Partners in Torah platform to find the perfect match.

Thousands of Jews worldwide, regardless of their religious affiliation or background, can sign up to learn with someone specific or to learn with someone new using the platform’s matching algorithm, Partners in Torah said in a statement.

“We will explain the ins and outs of Shabbat – including the hows and the difficult whys,” said Mernick. “We will also provide tips and tools to make the learning moments as enriching as possible. In this post-pandemic world, which managed to throw even the best of us off-track in terms of stability and spiritual well-being, it is beneficial to know that Shabbat is there to help recharge one and all.”

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