Jerusalem — The symbolic significance of Israeli President Shimon Peres receiving a Lifetime Achievement award this past week from Bar-Ilan University was not lost on the hundreds of attendees at the elegant ceremony.
Here was Shimon Peres, who epitomizes the secular, dovish element of society, being honored by – and in turn praising – the only university in the country that requires both Jewish and secular studies for all of its students and that is still perceived by many as right-wing Orthodox in orientation, perhaps because it is the alma mater of Yigal Amir, the assassin of Prime Minister Yitzchak Rabin.
Yet Peres had high praise for the Ramat Gan-based Bar-Ilan, which he aptly described as “the largest Jewish university in the world,”
with its 33,000 undergraduate and graduate students, noting that it blends science and Torah and excels in both areas. And he announced a major initiative — The Digital Judaic Bookshelf Project — that will be housed at Bar-Ilan and will make available to all the works of traditional Jewish culture and the modern Hebrew library.
The project, expected to cost $34 million, will be the greatest Jewish literacy effort ever, according to school officials, and is an outgrowth of Bar-Ilan’s Responsa Project, which includes over 90,000 questions and answers and books from all areas of Judaism.
The new plan calls for creating a greatly expanded database and powerful search engine to provide relevant information on all aspects of Jewish wisdom, from ancient texts to modern day Hebrew literature. Over the next decade, these works will become available as a user-friendly database for personal computers, and boys and girls in Israel and around the world will receive, as a bar or bat mitzvah gift, CDs with a wealth of Jewish content for their personal computers.
About 30 percent of all university graduates in Israel are alumni of Bar-Ilan, including current government leaders Tzipi Livni and Shaul Mofaz.
Many Israelis, like Peres, no doubt, have come to see the school as not only a leader in academic areas but as a much-needed bridge between Israel’s secular and religious communities, whose divide represents a serious and growing societal problem.
Every student is required to take about one-quarter of his or her course load in Judaic studies, from basic history to Talmud. And surprisingly, two-thirds of the student body identifies as primarily secular. Why do they come?
During a tour of the sprawling main campus, situated between here and Tel Aviv, with university President Moshe Kaveh and Mark Medin, newly appointed director of the New York office of American Friends of Bar-Ilan, I chatted with four students from different walks of life, having coffee at an outdoor campus café.
Lironne Carmi, a first-year student who described her upbringing in Israel and Canada as “very Israeli and not very Jewish,” said she was “a little afraid” of attending Bar Ilan because of its reputation as a “religious school” but she said, “I wanted to learn more about my heritage.”
She said she has enjoyed the experience, one reason being that “tolerance is a key word here.” She said she interacts with both religious and secular students. “We have debates,” she said, “and the stigmas and labels are broken down here. That’s what I love about this place.”
Shimrit Enowa who is studying for a master’s degree in international relations, arrived in Israel from Ethiopia at the age of 5 after walking through Sudan for a year. She grew up in a religious environment in Israel, “went away from Judaism for awhile” and then decided she wanted to combine Jewish and secular studies at Bar-Ilan, where she says she is able to study Jewish topics “on a higher, analytical level.”
Datya Shemfeld, who made aliyah with her family from New York when she was 6, hopes to be a Hebrew-English translator after completing her master’s degree next year. She said she was attracted to the midrasha, Jewish learning center for women – the largest in the world – and the chemistry department.
On Rosh Chodesh Nissan, she noted, some student groups recite special brachot for trees, which underscores combining Jewish ritual and concern for the environment.
Amir Mashiach, who is completing a doctorate in Jewish philosophy and rabbinical studies at Bar-Ilan, said that for him, “this feels like the biggest yeshiva in the world.” He hopes to be a pulpit rabbi and said he enjoyed teaching at Bar-Ilan’s popular, two year old program, Reishit, which offers informal courses on campus for students with less Judaic background.
Kaveh, a renowned physicist and president of the university since 1996, noted that the campus and student population have doubled in the last 10 years, as evidenced by the dazzling new buildings on the northern campus. With his unassuming and warm manner, Kaveh has managed to attract top academics and major funders in seeking to fulfill the dream of a university that could advance – and bring together – Israeli society.
“People are shocked when they see our campus,” he said. “They usually have no idea” that Bar Ilan is on the cutting edge in so many areas.
Along the tour we met with Stuart Zweiter, who directs the Lookstein Center for Jewish Education, which works closely with schools throughout the diaspora in “creating curriculum and community,” according to Zweiter, focusing on leadership programs and technological efforts to link teachers everywhere.
(The Lookstein Center is named for the late Rabbi Joseph Lookstein of New York, who was chancellor of Bar Ilan; another prominent New York rabbi, Emanuel Rackman, served as president.)
We also met with Shulamit Michaeli, an expert in research into infectious diseases and parasites, working with a team of 15 top young assistants from around the world; Ed Stern, who is optimistic that his research into an anti-Alzheimer drug would prevent the disease in future generations; and Hamutal Slovin, whose work in the neural imagery department could help some victims of blindness to be able to see by providing microstimulation in the visual cortex.
Kaveh was particularly enthused about a new complex under construction that will house Israel’s largest nanotechnology center, including one of only 10 such super-sophisticated machines in the world and a staff of 28 people using it in such areas as physics, chemistry and biology.
“This building will bring together the best interdisciplinary sciences,” he said.
As Shimon Peres noted in his address, “I would not have dared to dream that a scientific discipline so quintessentially modern …as nanotechnology would find so hospitable a reception at Bar-Ilan University,” adding that the school is “as remarkable for its spirit of innovation as for its grounding in tradition.”
Gary Rosenblatt was a panelist at a conference of The Begin-Sadat Center at Bar-Ilan University May 28-29. A portion of the expenses for his visit to Israel was provided by the university.