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First American-Style Liberal Arts College Opens Doors In Israel This Fall

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.

The college will be intimate, with an intake of just 50 people a year at first, and class sizes limited to around 25. Students will be asked to refrain from working more than eight hours a week, and will receive a stipend of 2,000 shekels ($550) a month to enable them to adhere to this limit. Fees are heavily subsidized by donations — Shalem is largely funded by American Jewish individuals and foundations — so students will only pay 6,000 shekels a year ($1,650), meaning that they will receive more money from the college than they will contribute. In addition to the monthly stipend, students will receive another 1,000 ($275) shekels a month if they live within a kilometer of campus.

This location-based incentive is designed to make the campus a lively venue even after classes — and to this end the college has kept Tuesdays free from classes and recruited Stephen Hazan Arnoff, a well-respected figure from New York’s Jewish cultural scene, to run extracurricular activities.

Hazan Arnoff, executive director of the 14th Street Y community center for the last six years, will head the college’s Office of Culture, Community and Society. He will coordinate intellectual, cultural, artistic and volunteering programs that will dominate Tuesdays and run throughout the week.

“The traditional research university is focused on frontal interaction with students,” said Hazan Arnoff. “We’re pursuing an experience where students are asked to learn in different modes for thinking about and experiencing ideas. The whole campus, city and country is our laboratory.”

That said, students will be expected to knuckle down to traditional university demands, with heavier reading lists than in most Israeli universities and an expectation to write more essays. There will be specialist departments that help them work on their writing skills in both Hebrew and English.

The aim of the college, according to Senior Vice President Daniel Gordis, is to produce students with broad and deep knowledge. “We would like our students to be people who have a different way of relating to things, a different way of appreciating an opera, and who can read about Egypt and discuss whether events there are more similar to the American or Russian revolutions,” he said.

The Shalem Center, the think tank that set up the college, has a reputation as being neo-conservative with a religious bent, and dominated by immigrants from the U.S. However, the staff and student rosters of the new college span the religious and political spectrums and break out of the Anglo mold.

For example, Omri Segev, a member of the left-wing Meretz party, planned to skip university and go in to local politics until he heard about Shalem College. Segev, a secular Israeli-born 23-year-old, said: “Before I was introduced to the Shalem program I wasn’t even considering going to university as I’d heard it was dull and flat — like high school for bigger children.” One demographic missing from the first group of students is Arabs, but Gordis said that the college is wide open to Arab applicants, and that while it generally looks for a national service record on applications, given that most Arabs don’t serve, those who haven’t would be at no disadvantage.

Gordis wants the college to give students the skills to discuss political differences with a dignity that is sometimes lacking in Israel. “Part of what we want to model is a place where people feel very comfortable expressing what they are … because we want to model how you interact with and discuss with people with whom you deeply disagree,” he said.

Nathan Jeffay is the Forward’s Israel correspondent. Contact him at [email protected]

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