Higher education

Israel’s first liberal arts college gets $16 million boost from Tikvah Fund

Shalem College brings the American humanities model to the Jewish state to help cultivate a new generation of understanding leadership

Yaakov Schwartz is The Times of Israel's deputy Jewish World editor

Shalem College (courtesy)
Shalem College (courtesy)

While the noble humanities are getting a bad rap in the United States compared to their more lucrative cousins, the STEM subjects, in Israel it seems things are trending in the opposite direction — at least in one case.

Shalem College, Israel’s first and only liberal arts program, is receiving a $16 million matching grant from The Tikvah Fund, in a move that will help the new academy continue to grow its faculty and curriculum alongside its expanding student body.

The contribution comes on the heels of another milestone: Shalem College was recently granted official accreditation by the Council of Higher Education, and graduated its first class this summer.

It was the culmination of a years-long effort that began in 2009 and continued through the matriculation of its first cohort in October 2013 and the duration of their four-year course of study.

Founded by a group of mostly foreign-born educators who themselves came up through the traditional American liberal arts system, Shalem College was established with the goal of raising the next generation of Israeli leadership with a well-rounded education that puts an emphasis on communication and critical thinking skills.

“We want students to be able to speak effectively to people from the entire range of Israeli society,” said Dr. Daniel Polisar, executive vice president of the college, and one of its founders.

Dr. Daniel Polisar. (Courtesy)

“They should be able to build coalitions with them, to understand their perspectives and needs — whether they’re speaking to Arab Israelis, Haredi Jews, ultra-secular Jews, or religious Zionists, or anyone in between. Because that sense of dialogue in a spirit of respect is something that Israel could stand to improve, and seems to be challenged in the Western world more generally,” he said.

The college is unique in Israel in that 50 percent of the curriculum consists of a diverse set of core classes that are mandatory for all students to graduate.

In addition to Western, Jewish and Zionist texts, students are required to delve into world history and Islam.

The model has quickly caught on. Ninety-five percent of the 180-strong student body were born in Israel, and classes are taught in Hebrew. The approximately 5% of students born abroad have virtually all performed national service and are well-integrated into Israeli society.

Not only are hundreds of applicants vying to be a part of each incoming class of 45 to 50 students — Polisar notes that acceptance to the school is quite “competitive” — but the faculty has grown to include professors from across the spectrum. This includes Arab Israelis, and Jews from every ideological background — all excited about the broad education provided by the program.

Students studying in the library. (Courtesy Shalem College)

It is a lot to take in over a relatively short four years, so Shalem provides a cost of living stipend to all students, designed to cover the majority of their expenses. Students who choose to live within a mile of campus also receive a housing subsidy. In return, the college demands rigorous focus on study, attendance, and coursework, including a commitment from students not to work a job for more than 12 hours per week.

One thing Shalem College graduates do not have in common with their American counterparts is student loan debt. But Polisar says that Shalem offers more than just a free ride.

“To the extent that people asked the question, ‘Can a liberal-arts-style education lead you to real opportunities within the State of Israel,’ so far the answer is a very clear ‘yes,’” he said.

Polisar says that, as of now, the largest concentration of graduates choose to go into education at levels anywhere from middle school through pre-army leadership training academies.

Others pursue advanced academic degrees, enter public affairs and politics, or go into the arts. One student who dabbles in industrial design even founded his own company, Koala Gear, selling backpacks and wallets, and gained local fame for bringing professional slackliner Heather Larsen to tightrope over the Tower of David Museum in Jerusalem’s Old City.

North American slackliner Heather Larsen walks on a cable above the Tower of David Museum at the Jerusalem Old City walls, on May 2, 2016, (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

“Students choose to do a broad range of things, which is what we wanted. The needs of Israel are diverse, and our students’ ability to contribute is pretty broad, so they went out to a mix of fields and we couldn’t be happier about it,” said Polisar.

The academy got its start in 1994 as the Shalem Center, a think tank and research institute based in Jerusalem. Research fellows included Yossi Klein Halevy, Michael Oren, Natan Sharansky, and Shalem College’s own Daniel Gordis, who helped co-found the college and is now senior vice president.

In the late ‘90s, philanthropist Zalman Bernstein, who died in 1999 at the age of 72, was an enthusiastic supporter of the center and had plans to help turn it into a full-fledged college designed to help form the future Israeli leadership. Bernstein also founded The Tikvah Fund, which provided an initial $12.5 million to Shalem College in 2013.

Students on the lawn of Shalem College in Jerusalem. (Courtesy)

“Shalem is angled to provide the next generation of leaders that have a real sense of what came before them, not just as Jews, which is critical, and not just as Zionists, which is important — very important — but also the influence of Jewish thought and Jewish ideas in relation to the West,” said Tikvah Fund chairman Roger Hertog.

“What makes this such a bold idea is that it is the first [Israeli] college solely dedicated to the humanities,” he said. “Math and science are also critical. But if you want to build citizens who understand the meaning and the purpose of life, they have to have some deeper understanding of what life is about, and how they can find their place in it to find out what they really want to do.”

Polisar agrees, and says the college is thrilled at what The Tikva Fund’s second contribution stands for.

“They’re saying that Shalem is even more promising than when they initially invested in it,” he said. “It’s a real vote of confidence.”

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