January 11, 2016

A College Course to Change Minds and Lives

Gila Rockman, Shalem’s new Director of the Service and Citizenship Department.

From the seemingly endless stream of articles about social entrepreneurship and charitable start-ups in one’s newsfeed, one could get the impression that changing the world—or even one problematic corner of it—is just a crowdfunding post away. The idea that complex problems demand thoughtful responses seems almost reactionary to today’s ambitious, idealistic college students. Not so at Shalem. “We want Shalem students to channel their passions into public service, and we want to encourage their desire for change,” says Gila Rockman, Shalem’s new Director of the Service and Citizenship Department. “But first we insist that they take a step back, study Israeli society and its challenges, and then move forward strategically to accomplish more than they ever imagined they could.”

Most students come to Shalem because they want to make a meaningful contribution to their community and country, and a significant number of them already have substantial volunteering experience, Rockman explains. In her role at the helm of the Department of Service and Citizenship, she is spearheading the college’s multifaceted efforts to turn these students into graduates capable of effecting positive change in the Jewish state. “If we can give them a solid grounding in the complexity of the issues facing Israel and what’s at stake in any attempt at solving them—then we’re helping them take their civic-mindedness to a higher level,” she says. “We’re empowering them to take on big problems, the ones that can change the course of this country.”

The cornerstone of Rockman’s efforts is a specially designed course for freshman, “Challenges and Schisms in Israeli Society,” which uses a tripartite approach to address issues of concern to the Jewish state. The tension between democracy and religion, Arab-Israeli identity, Haredi integration into society, and illegal immigration are just a few of the many subjects with which students will grapple during the year-long course. First, students are introduced to each subject by means of a seminar, the extensive reading list for which ensures a vibrant classroom discussion. Next, the college plays host to guest speakers whose experience and expertise in the field lend nuance to students’ understanding. Finally, students take their learning into the field—from tours of East Jerusalem’s Arab schools to the Supreme Court to youth centers in Israel’s Southern development towns—to deepen their knowledge of the topic yet further. “The idea behind this course is to approach hot-button issues methodically, and from all possible angles,” Rockman states. “We want to challenge preconceived notions of the reasons for certain problems. And we want students to see how seemingly discrete challenges are in truth interrelated.”

Yet the course is only the first step in a comprehensive, four-year process, Rockman cautions. “In their second year, students are required to spend time each week volunteering at a nonprofit with large-scale impact. We want them to get a feel for translating their understanding of a given challenge into the day-to-day work of addressing it. The gap between theory and practice in many of Israel’s most pressing issues is huge, and students need to realize that if they’re going to bridge it.”

Finally, at the beginning of their third year, students are handed over to the newly established Internships Department, which assists in their placement at a leading nonprofit organization, corporation, or governmental institution. Students spend the remaining two years of their degree applying the knowledge they’ve learned in the classroom into real-world situations—excellent practice for individuals determined to set the future course of their country. “Designing and implementing a four-year citizenship program requires a serious investment of resources, over and above those intended for students’ already rigorous course of study,” says Daniel Gordis, Shalem Senior Vice President, Koret Distinguished Fellow, and head of Shalem’s Core Curriculum Department, under whose purview the “Challenges and Schisms” course falls. “But we believe it’s worth it. Shalem was always intended to be a launching pad for the kind of leaders Israel needs. This program, alongside their unique curriculum, is a key step in making good on that promise.”


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