Jerusalem — Strolling around the new Shalem College recently, Daniel Gordis explained how the newly accredited, first-of-its kind liberal arts school will be a good fit for the neighborhood of Kiryat Moriah.
“There will be all kinds of cultural events, string quartets and drama to liven up the place,” said the college’s New York-born senior vice president.
“This feels much more like a college campus” than the small building in the nearby Rechavia neighborhood where the Shalem Center think thank was located. “It wasn’t handicapped-accessible, there were no classrooms and we couldn’t move the walls.”
At the college’s new building, behind a guard booth at the sprawling Jewish Agency campus on Ha’askan Street, there are not only ample classrooms but “there’s no security issues, we have a shul and a workout room.”
Only a skeleton crew of faculty and staff are on hand ahead of this fall’s opening (a year later than hoped), but there’s an evident sense of energy and purpose as Shalem — Hebrew for complete — “flips the switch,” in Gordis’ parlance, from a think tank with neoconservative origins and right-wing American backers to a center of higher learning that aims for the center.
“There’s a reawakening” in Israeli society, he insists, as is evident from the most recent elections, which saw a range of ideological secular parties get the most support, at the expense of religious and right-wing parties.
With hope for a land-for-peace deal with the Palestinians fading, Israelis are searching within for what kind of society they want to be. While Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid party and Naftali Bennet’s Jewish Home party offer divergent answers, their ascendance shows a rejection of the status quo, suggests Gordis, a prolific author who has written extensively about Israeli society.
Shalem aims to equip future leaders with a combination of Jewish values based on the Bible — as a repository of lessons rather than a system of laws — and a strong grounding in Western philosophy and culture.
“We may never have peace,” says Gordis. “So the question is how can I be a contributing member of society and learn something about the Jewish tradition to which we are all heirs.”
By the fall Shalem hopes to enroll 50 undergraduates working toward four-year degrees either in philosophy and Jewish thought or Middle Eastern and Islamic studies, with a core curriculum of sciences, philosophy and literature required of all students.
“There is nothing else like this in Israel,” said Gordis, a youthful 54, who made aliyah with his family in 1998. He is a Conservative-ordained rabbi who has a Ph.D. in social ethics and philosophy of law. “We are going to attract the best and the brightest students.”
In the culmination of a four-year process, Shalem was accredited in January by Israel’s Committee on Higher Education, which carefully scrutinized whether the think tank, whose fellows have included Natan Sharansky and Michael Oren, currently Israel’s ambassador to the U.S., could make the transition.
One concern was that faculty members were not experts in the disciplines they were teaching, according to Haaretz, which read the committee’s final report.
Shalem’s roots go back to the early ’90s, when its founders, Dan Polisar and Yoram Hazony, met at Princeton and lamented that there was no place in Israel that could meld respect for the liberal arts with a strong sense of Jewish identity and Zionism, Gordis recalls. (A profile of Shalem by Haaretz mentions a third founder, Josh Weinstein).
“They had the good sense to realize that two kids with BAs from Princeton aren’t going to waltz into Israel and start a liberal arts college,” said Gordis. So they focused on a think tank “with the intellectual heft that a Zionist liberal arts college would need, and one that would also bring in fellows to train the faculty of the future.”
The think tank set out to cultivate an ideology that challenged academia’s rejection of nationalism and stressed the contemporary resonance of biblical philosophy. And Shalem Press published Hebrew translations of Western philosophical classics in its Leviathan Series, including Thomas Hobbes’ “Leviathan,” David Hume’s “A Treatise of Human Nature,” Machiavelli’s “The Prince,” de Tocqueville’s “Democracy in America,” among many others.
But Gordis concedes that cultivating faculty was less successful. “What did not work out so well was to have people here over the course of many years to acquire for themselves the academic reputation we hoped they would acquire,” he said. “Most of the people coming onto the [college] faculty are not people who rose up through the ranks of Shalem, but are from other universities,” he said.
Other setbacks at the center include a 2007 leadership struggle and financial scandal that led to the firing and conviction on embezzlement charges of its CFO, Shaul Golan, Haaretz reported.
While gaining accreditation was a formidable hurdle, fundraising for the college seemed to come easily to Shalem; the $70 million campaign was kicked off with a $4.5 million matching grant from the Chicago-based Conduit Foundation, headed by Shalem trustee David Messer, a $12.5 grant from the Tikvah Fund, founded by the New York Bernstein family, and a $1 million donation from the Beker Foundation.
“We’re not going to take any government money,” Gordis vows. “And since we intend to give students a very good deal, we are not going to see significant income.”
Tuition would be about the same as other private colleges in Israel, a maximum of about $8,000 per year, the president, Martin Kramer told The Jerusalem Post.
Seth Goldstein, another vice president and Shalem’s chief of staff, adds that the new approach goes beyond the syllabus. “It’s not just the breadth of education and the style, it’s the whole element of living within a liberal arts environment that we are hoping to replicate,” he says. “It’s more residential, you’re reading great texts, there’s lots of faculty interaction. It’s a different model even than other places that could theoretically teach some of the same texts and different ideas.”
Shalem will offer Bible and Talmud study classes, but not with the intention of indoctrinating religion. Rather, the focus will be on what can be gleaned from texts for modern application. “What anybody chooses to eat or not eat, who they chose to marry, is not our business, not our interest,” says Gordis. “The Tanach, in addition to everything else it is, it’s also a great philosophical work, with great political philosophy and moral philosophy. If you’re going to read Hume or Rousseau as the originators of great ideas, we also want them to read the Tanach as a great philosophy.” (Tanach is a Hebrew arcronym for the teachings of the Torah, the prophets and sacred writings.)
Goldstein adds that teachers must also stress that Jewish teachings influenced the later thinkers.
Tzahy Weiss, who will teach Jewish mysticism and other courses next year and currently teaches at Hebrew University, says he wants his students to seek out questions as well as answers.
“They need to have some kind of vision,” he said. “They need to look for something, but what that is is not as important as being enthusiastic about the need to promote a vision within the framework of Israeli society.”
The Shalem Center has neoconservative origins and has been funded by such right-leaning American donors as Ronald Lauder. (Casino mogul Sheldon Adelson endowed a chair for Sharansky at the center but has not supported it since Sharansky’s departure in 2009.) Yoram Hazony was a close confidant of Benjamin Netanyahu until a reputed falling out, and the chairman of the board is Yair Shamir, son of the late Likud prime minister Yitzhak Shamir (though Yair is a member of the nationalist Yisroel Beitenu party). Given that right-wing orientation, it’s unclear how Shalem can hope to attract centrist or left-wing students.
But Goldstein suggests that many young Israelis have more flexible ideologies in their post-army youth.
“Philosophies are very much in flux in your early 20s,” says Goldstein. “Many of our own personal ideologies can be put to the test, though they should be rooted in something. An informed ideology can be different from the one you came in with if you learn something from your peers and faculty.”
If successful, Gordis said, Shalem College will be a “hotbed of civil discourse,” bringing together a wide range of Israelis — religious and secular Jews, Christians and Muslims, Sephardim and Ashkenaz, Ethiopians, liberals and conservatives, to ponder humanities and other studies together.
“You need an intellectual elite in the Orthodox or religious community that’s going to take Hobbes, Locke, Hume and Machiavelli seriously, and you need an intellectual elite among the secular community that’s going to take Jewish texts seriously,” Gordis added.
The Shalem student, he hopes, will be “deeply knowledgeable about the three traditions”: the Western tradition, the Jewish tradition and the Zionist tradition. “Having said that,” Gordis continued, “we have to represent all the spectra of Israeli life, from left to right. We want Jewish people to listen to Christians and Muslims, and the Muslims to see that Jews aren’t all that they may think we are …
“In that regard it’s like Columbia, St. John’s or Yale — small classes, elite kids reading texts and great ideas, in the context of, ‘What should this society become?’”