In the most ambitious attempt to import American-style higher education to Israel to date, the country’s first liberal arts college will open its doors this fall.
The four-year degree program at the new Shalem College, located on the Jewish Agency’s campus in the East Talpiot neighborhood in Jerusalem, will teach a broad curriculum like those found in American liberal arts colleges, and will use financial incentives to encourage students to be active in campus life.
The program is a world away from that of most Israeli colleges. While Israel’s universities are well regarded internationally and their undergraduate degrees are respected, their courses of study tend to be far more specialized and career-oriented. Additionally, there’s less emphasis on a campus experience.
Israeli undergraduates are older than their U.S. counterparts, having typically completed three years of national service. They’re more likely to live far from school and they typically have jobs, meaning they are far less likely to hang around campus and contribute to a college social life.
Shira Laurence, a 24-year-old Israeli who spent 13 years living in America, said that when she told her friends she had enrolled for the inaugural Shalem semester this fall, most of them said that they found the concept of the program alien. “Most of my Israeli friends said when they heard about it, ‘What are you going to do with this degree?’” she told the Forward. The core curriculum has a strong “great books” emphasis, and includes Plato, Aristotle, Hume, Shakespeare, Tolstoy, Durkheim and Einstein. Key texts from Jewish tradition are drawn from the Babylonian Talmud, Maimonides, Spinoza and the Dead Sea Scrolls. Sections of the Quran are also compulsory.
“If we were just bringing the kind of curriculum from St. John’s College and the intensity of Princeton, that would be a nice thing to do,” said faculty member Daniel Polisar, who is the college’s executive vice president and provost. “But we are also creating a curriculum for Israelis, whose country sits on a crossroads between Western and Jewish civilizations.”
Students will specialize after their first year — but the two courses of study offered are both broad in scope. One is Middle East and Islamic studies; the other is Israel’s first interdisciplinary program in philosophy and Jewish thought.