Shalem College
November 20, 2019

Humanities Program for Outstanding High-School Students Picks Up Steam Throughout the Country

Humanities Program for Outstanding High-School Students Picks Up Steam Throughout the Country
Ruach Tzeira brings motivated tenth, eleventh, and twelfth graders together for weekly Great Books-style seminars, at the center of which is always a direct encounter with a text.

With few exceptions, young people generally find the work of deciphering poetry a fairly tedious chore. Which is precisely why the sight of a dozen or so tenth graders animatedly discussing the thousand-line long Babylonian creation myth Enuma Elish on a Sunday evening in Jerusalem’s National Library is so remarkable. And to Ze’ev Elitzur, head of the program responsible for their weekly meetings, so uplifting.

“In the Israeli educational system today, there is hardly any room for the humanities. No place is reserved for cultivating among our youth an appreciation for the foundational texts of the Western and Jewish traditions. The texts, that is, that have shaped our culture, our values, our very identities,” Elitzur explains. “That’s why these students’ presence here is so important. They are some of Israel’s most gifted young citizens, they’re committed to the service of their country—and they’re making the study of the humanities a priority.”

Elitzur is director of Ruach Tzeira (“Young Spirit”), a program for outstanding high-school students in the humanities with branches in several major cities in Israel. In partnership with the Ministry of Education, the National Library, and Shalem College, and with support from the local municipalities in which it operates, Ruach Tzeira brings motivated tenth, eleventh, and twelfth graders together for weekly Great Books-style seminars, at the center of which is always a direct encounter with a text. “Like Shalem, Ruach Tzeira has adapted the traditional liberal arts curriculum to an Israeli setting. We’ve also incorporated uniquely Jewish approaches to textual study,” explains Elitzur. “That’s why you’ll see high-school seniors learning Martin Luther’s ‘95 Theses’ in havruta [one-on-one] study groups. It’s a bit wild,” he laughs.

According to Elitzur, Ruach Tzeira grew out of an awareness that Israel had gone too far in its emphasis on STEM fields to the exclusion of the humanities in the educational system. “Among decision-makers in the Pedagogical Secretariat [the division of the Ministry responsible for determining curriculum], there is a growing recognition that specialization at the expense of a broad education comes with costs,” Elitzur says. “A democracy depends for its survival and vitality on an educated citizenry capable of free and critical thinking. That’s what Ruach Tzeira is about, and why our partnership with Shalem is such a natural fit.”

And not just with Shalem: This year, the program was invited to partner with the Pelech School for Girls, considered one of Jerusalem’s most prestigious high schools, in the development and implementation of an intensive humanities curriculum. “We see this partnership as a means of bringing humanistic learning to the future women leaders of this country,” Elitzur says.

At the word “leaders,” however, Elitzur is quick to point out that Ruach Tzeira takes a particular view of leadership. “We’re not aiming to place our alumni in any particular professions; we’re not saying, ‘as a result of what you learn in our program, you’ll be ready to take up this or that key position and shift the agenda.’ Our aim is much more far reaching,” he says. “We want to prepare our graduates to answer the wide and deep questions that face Israeli society today, and those that will face Israeli society tomorrow. We’re not interested in ideologies. We’re interested in preparing bright and dedicated young people to think seriously and creatively about the challenges their country faces.”

That was certainly the theme of the recent reunion of the program’s first crop of graduates, hosted by Shalem. The participants were all on the cusp of either military or national service, or of a year of study at a mechina (pre-military leadership academy)—ways, that is, of taking concrete steps toward contributing to their country. “This was not a sentimental class reunion, but an opportunity to explore how our humanistic learning can play a role in the next stage of their lives, and the ones that follow. Not all of them will end up at Shalem,” Elitzur jokes, “so we need to start a conversation about how to bring the unique kind of thinking that happens in the humanities into whatever field they pursue. That’s the only way,” he concludes, “to ensure that Israel has the kind of leaders it needs in the years and decades to come.”