Coming soon — a Jewish liberal arts college

This is one in a series of articles on myriad topics related to Israel that will run weekly as we approach the Jewish State’s 60th anniversary on Yom HaAtzmaut, Israel Independence Day, in May.

Dr. Daniel Gordis
At a time when most Israeli university professors were on strike, Dr. Yoram Hazony, co-founder of the Shalem Center, a think tank and research institute, continued with his course schedule as usual at the center’s handsome, three-story building in the upscale German Colony neighborhood of Jerusalem. He was recapping for Israeli college students alternate ways Western philosophers have solved the dichotomy between the world of ideas and reality. The bookshelves of the small conference room were lined with talmudic and biblical books as well journals on Zionism, political thought and philosophy, many of them Shalem titles.

If all goes well, this course will be included in the curriculum of a new College of the Jewish People, an idea Hazony is determined to bridge with reality in the face of challenges invovled in starting such a college: accreditation, funding, recruitment of student and faculty and resistance by some members of the Israeli media and academic establishment.

Israeli-born and raised in the United States, Hazony first envisioned a college for the Jewish people while an undergraduate student at Princeton, where he describes discussing religion, philosophy and politics late into the night with friends in the kosher dining hall. While seeking answers to questions relating to Jewish identity, it soon became clear to him that an American Ivy League college, whose credo was to prepare leaders “in the nation’s service,” could not prepare leaders in the service of the Jewish nation.

“The idea of the Jewish liberal arts college began with the question: What would Jews or non-Jews interested in the Jewish perspective need to study in order to think about the biggest questions from a perspective that’s relevant to Jews,” Hazony said in an interview in his office.

He founded the Shalem Center in 1994 with others from Princeton, Daniel Polisar, currently Shalem’s president, and Dr. Joshua Weinstein. Hazony believes the groundwork has now been laid to realize Shalem College.

Shalem has grown from a think tank with a staff of three to an institute operating on a $10 million yearly budget with a staff of 100. Most of its funding comes from the Tikva Fund, created by the late philanthropist Zalman Bernstein. In recent months the center has been the subject of scrutiny for internal administrative problems and in the past Hazony’s critiques of Israeli education have been the subject of controversy. Nevertheless, it has established its influence internationally.

Shalem runs six research institutes and its own press, and its senior fellows include best-selling author and historian Michael Oren, former Knesset member Natan Sharansky and former Israeli Chief of Staff Moshe Ya’alon.

shalem center

Last year, Shalem recruited Dr. Daniel Gordis to spearhead the creation of the college. Gordis made news in Los Angeles in 1999, when he announced that he was making aliyah with his family five years after serving as founding dean of the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies at the University of Judaism (now the American Jewish University). The Ziegler school was the first Conservative rabbinical school on the West Coast, and Gordis’ new position will enable him to once again make Jewish educational history.

“If you can come in on the ground floor of something that you think has the capacity to dramatically transform the country, then that seems to be the ultimate concretization of the ideal of aliyah in a way that nothing else could be,” Gordis said from his new office on the Shalem campus, where he serves as senior vice president.

The college is planned as an American-style, four-year liberal arts school, an educational model that doesn’t exist in Israel. Israelis usually enter a three-year college or university program in their early-to-mid-20s, right after army service, choosing their majors straightaway. Israeli universities generally don’t share American campus or dorm culture. Most students view their college years as vocational training and commute to school, often juggling their studies with a full- or part-time job.

“We want to change the experience of what being an undergraduate student is about,” Gordis said.

Shalem envisions an isolated, rural, full-fledged university campus modeled after American schools like Williams College and Bryn Mawr.

“We want to create a cocoon, not an ivory tower, where people can read and think and sit on a lawn and read Plato and Aristotle and [Rabbi Joseph B.] Soloveichik and [Zionist thinker Micah Joseph] Berdichevski,” Gordis said.

What will differentiate Shalem College from most American universities is an emphasis on an integrated core curriculum that combines studies in Bible, Talmud, rabbinic literature and Zionist and Jewish thought with Western philosophy, political theory and Middle Eastern studies.

“It’s going to be a college that takes Jewish ideas seriously and the Zionist narrative seriously, even though you can critique it,” Gordis said. Shalem has developed a reputation as a politically conservative institute, but Gordis stressed that the college will accommodate a wide range of political views, minus anti-Zionist views: “People who think Zionism has nothing to do with the Jewish world wouldn’t want to be here.”

Anti-Zionism and post-Zionism viewpoints, which question the basic conception, relevance or moral basis of the Jewish state, have plagued humanities departments in Israeli universities since the country’s founding, said Hazony, provost of the college. In addition, he has observed that Judaism and the Bible have been cast as minor characters in the narrative of the development of Western civilization, not only abroad but in the Jewish state.

“The history of political theory is taught from a perspective that assumed that the Bible, Talmud and later literature had no influence at all in what we think today. This is historically false,” Hazony said.

He hopes the college will revive the recognition and prominence of the role of Judaism and the Bible in shaping modern democratic ideas.