Being the first and only rabbi in the German city of Krefeld since World War II is a privilege for Rabbi Yitzchak Mendel Wagner, but it doesn’t leave much opportunity for camaraderie with fellow rabbis.

So Wagner reaches across the North Sea for interaction. Through the Jewish Learning Network, a Chabad-Lubavitch run service that connects people the world over for the purpose of strengthening Torah study, Wagner has built a lifelong friendship with Rabbi Aaron Lipsey, the Sale-based financial director of Lubavitch South Manchester in England.

The two have been studying Chasidic discourses together for three years.

“We hit it off straight away,” says Lipsey, who also serves as rabbi of the Sale Hebrew Congregation in Manchester. “The relationship developed beyond just study. We’re both rabbis of small communities, and we can share the challenges we face as the religious leadership. We do a lot of talking not directly related to the texts we’re studying, whether it’s advice or bouncing ideas off each other.”

Rabbi Yehudah Dukes, managing director of JNet, made the match.

“Our mission is to make Torah learning more convenient, regardless of someone’s background,” says Dukes. “A common factor amongst all the learners is that they’re looking to study more but don’t have many options for whatever reason.”

Based at Lubavitch World Headquarters in Brooklyn, N.Y., JNet pairs men and women of all ages and backgrounds with volunteer study partners. Each pair typically learn once a week for about half an hour on any topic of their choice, although the most popular subjects are the weekly Torah portion, Jewish law, and Chasidic thought.

Established in 2005, the organization recently matched its 2,000th partnership. Dukes says it’s responsible for more than 27,000 individual study sessions each year. Many recruits are identified through the Judaism website Chabad.org, he says.

“Chabad.org is one of my primary sources of applicants,” explains the rabbi. “We try to align age, marital status, etc. so that the pair is productive. I’m constantly recruiting people. I’ll introduce myself to anyone who looks like they’re a potential learner, start up a conversation and ask if they have time.”

In this case, it was Wagner in Germany who contacted JNet looking for someone with whom to share rigorous study.

With just more than 1,000 Jews, many of them Russian-speaking immigrants, Krefeld once boasted an illustrious Jewish community dating back to Napoleonic times until it was decimated in WWII. Bereft of a substantial community for decades, the city saw a rebirth in the early 1980s with the arrival of Jewish businessmen, followed by a large influx of Jews from the former Soviet Union beginning in 1989.

Loving Every Jew

Becoming the first rabbi in Krefeld in 70 years was never part of Wagner’s plan, but after a journalist from a Jewish German newspaper wrote up a story about the native receiving rabbinic ordination in Israel, community board members approached him and asked if he’d take on an official role.

Wagner became interested in Judaism in young adulthood, studying at the Mayanot Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem, where he was introduced to Chasidic thought and Chabad teachings for the first time.

“The Chasidic idea of loving every Jew no matter what and caring about his or her needs was very important to me. This is what inspired me to return to lead a small community,” says Wagner in a near-perfect English he mastered while devouring books on Judaism and debating with pupils at Mayanot.

In England, Lipsey heard about Wagner from a fellow rabbi in Manchester familiar with JNet and decided to volunteer to learn with the young rabbi. The two clicked immediately.

These days, they even share sermons, although the jokes don’t always carry over well across the sea.

“We serve very different crowds: his British and mine mostly Russian,” says Wagner. “Still, we have similar challenges and it’s good to be able to speak to someone and share ideas. It’s more than a learning session. It became a friendship very quickly.”

After three years of studying a variety of texts and catching up weekly by phone, Wagner and Lipsey finally got a chance to meet in person. Wagner flew in for the upsherin, or first haircutting, of Lipsey’s three-year-old son this past February.

“Although there are fairly cheap flights between England and Germany, we just never had the excuse to make the trip and meet,” says Lipsey, a father of four.

Wagner joined the Lipseys for the celebration and stayed at their home overnight, returning to Germany the following day. A month later, he was back in the UK, and the two met up again.

“I didn’t know he was so short, and I don’t think he expected me to be so tall,” says Wagner with a laugh.

Lipsey hopes to meet Wagner’s wife and young daughter sometime this summer. He says it’s a friendship that’s sure to continue for a long time.

“There’s no question it will continue,” says Lipsey. “We go through times when our sessions are more study based, and other times it’s just an excuse to keep in touch. I think it’s a fantastic opportunity to meet someone you wouldn’t normally meet.”