Humanities for Heroes: The David and Fela Shapell IDF Education Program at Shalem
According to legend, the great military mind Alexander the Great fell asleep each night with a dog-eared copy of The Iliad under his pillow. And when he led his army into Persia, it was the words of his tutor Aristotle that echoed through his mind, shaping his vision of what true leadership should be.
To the masterminds of Shalem’s David and Fela Shapell IDF Education Program, the ancient king was on to something: Namely, the idea that the power to persuade others to persevere despite hardship and fear, not to mention to outthink a determined enemy, require far more than physical prowess or even advanced technology. Rather, these hallmarks of great leadership require a deep understanding of both the human condition and of that which is at stake—the sort of ideas more likely to be found in the lines of Homer than in a military handbook.
“Our IDF education program is a demonstration of the college’s institutional commitment to Israel’s military and an opportunity for its officers and soldiers to gain a nuanced understanding of their culture, history, and even their own identity,” says Dr. Daniel Polisar, the executive vice president of Shalem.
Polisar explains that the IDF, like other armies around the world, is designed to produce highly trained specialists in critical fields. And much like Israel’s university model, this approach is successful at producing experts in technical areas. It is less successful, however, at preparing individuals to confront unfamiliar challenges or, more importantly, to understand and appreciate what it is they are fighting for.
“Bringing our most motivated soldiers, and especially their officers, into conversation with the ideas that have shaped their tradition and civilization can grant deeper meaning and purpose to their sacrifice,” Polisar says. “It can also deeply affect the decisions they make as civilians and future leaders of the Jewish state. Providing these exceptional young people with this kind of enrichment,” concludes Polisar, “is therefore a long-term investment in our state and society.”
The Shapell Program takes the form of half- and full-day educational sessions for IDF intelligence and elite combat units, both on bases throughout the country and at Shalem College itself. Notable Shalem faculty, including former deputy chief of Israel’s National Security Council Dr. Eran Lerman and prize-winning author of Zionist thought Dr. Assaf Inbari, lead text- and discussion-based seminars in the areas of Zionism and Jewish thought, Western literature, and Islam and the Middle East. Seminar topics include “Is Israel a Nation State? An Evaluation of the Israeli Law of Return,” “Abraham the Leader: A Character Profile,” and “Modern Political History of Syria and Lebanon.” There is also a course for soldiers about to be discharged that compares the Bible and Homer’s The Odyssey, taught by Shalem’s founding educational director Dr. Ido Hevroni, and designed to raise thoughtful questions surrounding the journey back into civilian life.
To date, more than two thousand current and recently discharged soldiers and officers have participated in the program, including members of the IDF’s elite air force commando unit and air force pilots.
In light of the overwhelming positive response Shalem has received from participating soldiers and unit heads, Shalem is currently pursuing certification from the IDF as an approved educational-content provider, a status that will grant the college both continued access to high-level teaching opportunities as well as allow for an increased project scope.
“In the years to come, we hope to bring Shalem’s model of dynamic, discussion-based learning to a greater number of soldiers who can benefit from this encounter with big civilization-defining ideas, as well as with the kind of unique insights about Israel and the region our faculty has to share,” concludes Polisar. “If we can place their service in the larger context of the miracle and necessity of a Jewish state, we will have advanced our vision of a college established in the service of the Jewish nation.”