Shalem College

The Commencement

Shalem students stand poised to take on the Jewish state.

June 29, 2017

To the brisk, proud tempo of the Zionist marching song “Here in the Land of Our Forefathers,” and accompanied by the cheers of a five-hundred-plus-strong crowd, the 41 members of Shalem’s first academic class marched in cap and gown into the plaza on the Kiryat Moriah campus this past Sunday, June 25th, marking the exuberant start of the Shalem College Inaugural Commencement.

And of course, much more than that as well.

“Shalem was founded with the bold goal of preparing a new kind of leadership for the Jewish state. We did this by means of an elite American educational model that emphasizes the study of the great ideas of our civilization alongside meaningful engagement with Israeli society,” said Shalem Senior Vice President, Koret Distinguished Fellow, and Chair of the Core Curriculum Dr. Daniel Gordis. It was therefore only fitting, he said, that the Shalem Commencement feature both an American and an Israeli candidate for an honorary degree: Mr. Roger Hertog, chairman of the Tikvah Fund and president of the Hertog Foundation, and Mr. Haim Gouri, the poet, novelist, filmmaker, and Israel Prize laureate, respectively. “This ceremony, with its blend of American tradition and vibrant Israeli character, reflects and celebrates the success of that innovation and what it means for this country’s future.”

With an advisor to the Speaker of Knesset, the director of a first-of-its-kind Arabic-language Israeli news site, and the assistant director of a nonprofit that seeks to build regional partnerships with Sunni states among those who received certificates of completion at the Commencement, Shalem’s first academic class is poised to help shape Israeli society in critical and varied fields. What unites them all is a deep commitment to their country and a nuanced understanding of its challenges, traits that Shalem President Isaiah Gafni believes will result in meaningful contributions to the Jewish state.

Shalem Educational Director Ido Hevroni: “We could not have asked for a better class than you.”

Shalem Educational Director Ido Hevroni: “We could not have asked for a better class than you.”

“With knowledge comes not only freedom, but also responsibilities,” he told students during his welcoming remarks at the Commencement. “Recognizing the complexity of reality naturally exposes the weaker points of our world, those in need of fixing…. It is incumbent on every one of you to ask yourselves how the unique educational experience you have received at Shalem can contribute to and improve our society.”

Hannah Rubinstein ’17, who delivered the Commencement’s student address, took that sentiment one step farther. Describing the city of Ithaca in Homer’s epic poem as the place from which Odysseus famously set forth, but which nevertheless always accompanied him on his journeys, inspiring and spurring him on, Hannah said that Shalem has had a similarly transformative effect on her and her fellow students. Her time at the college, she explained, helped her define the ideas of service and study as lifelong, all-pervasive pursuits.

“I am leaving here a different person, equipped with invaluable tools—both intellectual and practical—for the rest of my journey. I am setting off for different places and new experiences, but Shalem will remain with me,” said Hannah. “It will have lasting reverberations, ones that will influence where I go and what I do from this point on.”

Hannah Rubinstein ’17: “Shalem will remain with me.”

Hannah Rubinstein ’17: “Shalem will remain with me.”

She went on to thank her fellow students directly, calling them “the sort of individuals I aspire to be,” whose diverse backgrounds, opinions, and interests played a vital role in her academic and personal growth over the last four years. “The separation from you,” she concluded, “is going to be the hardest part of graduation.”

Also addressing the crowd were Hertog and Gouri, both of whom received the Shalem College medallion.

Hertog, who was one of the founding partners at the investment research and management firm Sanford C. Bernstein & Co., was asked by his long-time colleague and friend Zalman C. Bernstein to chair the Tikvah Fund, a philanthropic fund he established to advance Jewish causes, after Zalman’s death. The evening honored Hertog for his ideas-centered approach to philanthropy, which, among other initiatives, resulted in Tikvah’s playing a key role in the establishment of Shalem College. “Tikvah, if its myriad, far-reaching, and relentlessly ambitious programs can be summed up in a single mission statement, is about educating young people in the ancient yet timeless ideas of both Western civilization and the Jewish tradition, in order to advance Jewish excellence and flourishing,” explained Shalem executive vice president Dr. Daniel Polisar, who presented Hertog at the ceremony. “It is no surprise, then, that Shalem College is a dream realized in large part through Tikvah’s support, and with Roger’s guidance. Over the past 18 years, he has spent countless hours helping to achieve Zalman’s audacious goal: establishing an academically superb, proudly Zionist, ideas-driven institution of higher education in and for the Jewish state.”

Watch as Mr. Roger Hertog, chair of the Tikvah Fund and president of the Hertog Foundation, is presented as a candidate for an honorary degree.

Polisar also noted Hertog’s tireless work on behalf of numerous American cultural institutions, for which he was awarded the National Humanities Medal at a White House ceremony in 2007. “Just as he focused, at Bernstein & Company, on ‘value investing’ aimed at the long term,” said Polisar, “so too in philanthropy did he invest in ideas, big ideas, civilization-shaping ideas.”

In his speech, Hertog declared Shalem the result of not only the bold vision of its founders, but also “their willingness to take risks and not succumb to the fear of failure.” Calling the founders’ approach “a lesson for all of us,” Hertog urged students “never give up! They [Shalem’s founders] never did. I hope you won’t.”

In his concluding remarks, Hertog chose to quote from an essay by Theodor Herzl entitled “Menorah,” in which the founder of modern political Zionism compares his role in history with that of the shamash on the Hanukkah menorah. Looking out at the audience, Hertog declared that he saw “the light that Theodor Herzl first kindled in the mind’s eye of us all, and I’m optimistic that now you, in turn, will become the shamash: for your friends, for your family, for future graduates of Shalem College, and through your leadership…for the future of the State of Israel.”

Hear students reflect on the studies and relationships that changed them, and how they plan to leverage their experience at Shalem into a meaningful future.

The evening’s second honoree was the poet, novelist, documentary filmmaker, and Israel Prize laureate Mr. Haim Gouri, who was presented by Mr. Yair Shamir, chair of the executive committee of Shalem’s International Board of Governors. Gouri, one of Israel’s leading poets, played a critical role in the establishment of the state: He was a commander in the Palmach; was sent to Hungary to assist Holocaust survivors seeking to emigrate to British Mandate Palestine; during the War of Independence, served as a deputy company commander in the Palmach’s Negev Brigade; and covered the Eichmann Trial for one of Israel’s leading newspapers. He is best known, however, for his poems “Bab el Wad,” which describe the wreckage of the convoys on the way to Jerusalem, and “Hare’ut,” which commemorates those who fell in the War of Independence.

“I, like generations of Israelis, sang his lyrics, which have become a kind of communal rite of remembrance,” said Shamir. “They have turned all of us, who fought for, worked for, and built up this country, into a national family.

“But it is not just history that made Haim the right choice for tonight’s honor,” continued Shamir. “He is an integral part of our nation’s past, but he has never for a moment rested on the laurels of Israel’s founding generation.” Shamir concluded by expressing the hope that “our first class of students will act not only in the same spirit of deep devotion to their country that you have always displayed, but will also never pause in their pursuit of wisdom, no matter where it may lead.”

Watch as Mr. Haim Gouri, the poet, novelist, filmmaker, and Israel Prize laureate, is presented as a candidate for an honorary degree.

Gouri, in his address to the graduating class, recalled the first time that he had met them, when he was invited to speak at the extracurricular Bible class. “A few months ago, I told you that I would return and meet with you once again…. There was something in that meeting that called me back. The questions you asked, the way you listened… When I met with you, I felt such happiness. I felt that here, there is a love and a thirst for knowledge, a curiosity, and a devotion to Hebrew culture.”

Emphasizing the need for a college such as Shalem in the Jewish state, Gouri suggested redefining the world “elite,” which, he explained, has negative associations in Israeli society—and unfairly so. “An ‘elite’ is a group of individuals that contributes in different ways to culture, to national strength, and to universal values, and lives a deeply moral existence at the heart of its society. You,” he said to the students, “are a critical part of the Israeli elite.”

In between the presentation of candidates for honorary degrees, the crowd was treated to a musical interlude courtesy of Maureen Nehedar, the Israeli singer and songwriter known for creating a renaissance in traditional Persian Jewish poetry. Nehedar sang “Beautiful Heights,” a song whose lyrics she based on a poem by the medieval Jewish philosopher Rabbi Judah Halevi and which she set to her own music.

Finally, the Shalem College Choir treated the crowd to a rendition of Naomi Shemer’s “May It Be” (“Lu Yehi”), a song of prayer for an end to war, for the safety of loved ones, and for peace and prosperity just ahead.

Before closing the ceremony by calling each student onstage to accept his or her certificate, Shalem Educational Director Dr. Ido Hevroni addressed the students in a moving speech that concluded with thanks for the imprint they have left on the college. “Looking back, we could not have asked for a better inaugural class than you,” said Hevroni. “Hungry for knowledge, active politically and socially, and unwilling to take anything for granted. When your strengths met our program of study,” he concluded, “something beautiful was born—for you students, for your communities, and for your country.”

“We look forward,” finished Hevroni “to watching you spread your wings and lift off.”