June 6, 2019

Shalem College Partners with The Asper Foundation for Unique Pilot Program in Zionist Education

Dr. Micha Goodman, acclaimed author and educator, speaks about Theodor Herzl’s Altneuland at the launch of Shalem’s “The Israel Story” series.

What is the right use of books? In answering his own question, the poet Ralph Waldo Emerson insisted that they were meant “to inspire” new ways of thinking—about oneself, but more so about one’s relation to others, and ultimately to society at large. No doubt, the man considered one of America’s preeminent philosophers of democracy would have approved of the initiative by a small college in a young democracy across the ocean, which used books to begin a critical conversation about the ideas, dreams, and spirit that have animated Israelis, then and now.

“As part of Shalem’s goal of preparing a new generation of leaders for Israel, we see the increasing lack of knowledge on the part of young Israelis about their own history and culture as an urgent, even existential challenge,” explains Shalem Executive Vice President Dr. Daniel Polisar. “After all, if Israelis are not familiar with the ideas underlying the establishment of the modern Jewish state, they have little reason to make the sacrifices necessary to ensure its future. The question, then, was how to devise a curriculum that would prove both engaging and effective, and even, for these leading citizens, transformative.”

For the leadership of Shalem, the challenge was a welcome opportunity. All it needed was a partner who shared its vision for a new model of Zionist education. “Naturally,” Polisar says, “we found it in The Asper Foundation.”

The Asper Foundation was founded in Winnipeg in 1983 by the late media mogul, businessman, politician, and lawyer Israel (Izzy) Asper and Babs Asper, both of whom were philanthropists and deeply passionate Zionists. It has earned a name for pioneering philanthropy in its native Canada and in the Jewish state. Among its iconic projects are the Canadian Museum for Human Rights in Winnipeg, the first museum dedicated to the idea that understanding and respecting human rights can catalyze positive change in the world, and the forthcoming World’s Jewish Museum in Tel Aviv, which will demonstrate the significance of outstanding Jewish contributions to humankind. In keeping with the Aspers’ ardent belief in the critical role of education to the survival and success of the Jewish state and people, the Foundation also has a long history of spearheading and supporting Jewish educational programs in both countries.

“As soon as we began working with Shalem on the idea for ‘The Israel Story,’ we knew that this was the right partnership for us,” said Leonard Asper, Chairman of The Asper Foundation. Our parents were deeply proud of the accomplishments of the Jewish people and of their establishment of a modern, vibrant state of their own. As a family we believe that all Jews, and especially Israelis, needed to be taught their story in a manner that instills pride and a commitment—to questioning and to reevaluation, but most of all to engagement. This program,” he concludes, “does exactly that.”

“The Israel Story,” an ambitious extra-curricular initiative that launched in November, aims to provide a different model for teaching Israeli history and culture. Building on the success of Shalem’s existing curriculum in Zionist thought and literature, “The Israel Story” broadens students’ understanding of central Zionist themes through the close examination of significant works of modern Hebrew and Jewish literature over the course of their four years of study. The books, explains Shalem Educational Director Dr. Ido Hevroni, are chosen in coordination with the initiative’s guest speakers—themselves well-known Israeli authors, scholars, and public figures—who deliver a keynote lecture at each event. Critically, students are given a copy of each book a month in advance and expected to read it in its entirety. Each lecture, then, can be preceded by a campus-wide study session, in which small groups of students discuss the main themes of the work and its resonance with their own experience.

The format, Hevroni clarifies, is designed to put students at ease as much as to engender participation.

“We wanted the pedagogy to forge a community around shared values, while at the same time encouraging a range of different viewpoints,” he says. “And what better place to start—here and everywhere—than with great texts themselves? Both the ones that inspired our collective story, and the ones that make us stop and reflect on it.”

If the first event in the series, featuring acclaimed author and educator Dr. Micah Goodman on Theodor Herzl’s classic Altneuland (Old-New Land), was any indication, the experiment seems to be bearing fruit.

“It was the intimacy of a book club combined with the seriousness of a formal event, which elevated students’ conversations,” said Gila Rockman, Shalem’s director of the Department of Citizenship and Service, and organizer of “The Israel Story” events. “Students felt free to voice their opinions on Herzl’s arguments, even his writing style—in short, they really engaged with the text, with each other, and with Dr. Goodman. But they were also aware that all these discussions had a higher purpose. The very act of having them was, in a way, part of the Jewish national project.”

Students agreed. “Herzl’s book forced us to reflect on the founders’ vision for the State of Israel, and on the ways in which that vision has either been fulfilled or has fallen short,” said Ori Kimche ’22. “Our discussions touched on issues that are deeply relevant to Israeli society today.”

Additional speakers in the series included Israeli author Gail Hareven, winner of the prestigious Sapir Prize for Literature, who spoke about Aharon Appelfeld’s final novel, Astonishment, and the acclaimed author and Israel Prize winner A.B. Yehoshua, who spoke about what he considers the finest of his books: Mr. Mani, an intergenerational Jewish-family saga. “For our students, Yehoshua’s visit was an exceptional opportunity to hear from a public figure who experienced the founding of the state firsthand, and whose works reflect the story that is Jewish nationhood,” says Hevroni.

Finally, on May 27, Bilha Ben Eliyahu completed the pilot year with a lecture on Amos Oz’s A Tale of Love and Darkness. Ben Eliyahu, a noted lecturer at several institutions of higher education in Jerusalem, is best known for her past work on a weekly literary program broadcast nationally on Kol Israel Radio.

“The great advantage of this approach to teaching and learning about Zionism is that it shows both the diversity of thought within the movement and some of the core ideas that galvanized Jews and Israelis to build a state in the most challenging of conditions,” says Polisar. “That, and the fact that it gets students talking about a subject critical to their development as future leaders.”

Leonard Asper wholeheartedly agrees. “Our parents would have been overjoyed to see a campus full of talented, idealistic students in Jerusalem debating a classic work of Israeli literature with such passion,” he stated. “It would have filled them with hope for the future of the Jewish state. As the next generation of the Foundation, it is an honor and a privilege for me and my siblings David and Gail to be part of this important venture.”

For more information on this initiative, please contact Marla Braverman, director of communications at Shalem College, at marlab@shalem.ac.il, or Shai Abramson, The Asper Foundation representative in Israel, at sabramsonsasc@gmail.com.

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