Shalem Honors Philanthropist Terry Kassel, Author Hillel Halkin, and Journalist Sivan Rahav Meir at its Sixth Annual Commencement Exercises
Addressing the Class of 2022 at the college’s sixth annual commencement exercises in Jerusalem on June 29th, President Russ Roberts referenced a poem that he had studied together with students this year: “Geese,” by Agi Mishol. Reminding the students of the speaker’s search for birds that fly backwards, he exhorted all of them to try and do the same. “Much of what we do here at Shalem is help you fly backwards—to see into the past and know where you came from. To understand that your past is part Athens and part Jerusalem, and that this country, which is your inheritance, has a rich past already in just under 75 years.”
Concluding what Master of Ceremonies and scholar of Talmud and classical literature Dr. Ido Hevroni acknowledged were four years marked by a range of challenges, due first to the campus renovation and then to the global Covid-19 pandemic, the Class of 2022 was visibly—and audibly—upbeat about its future as it marched into the plaza to the music of pop singer Hanan Ben Ari. Among those present at the annual event—which grants the classical pomp and circumstance a uniquely Israeli flavor—were the evening’s three honorary-degree recipients: the business leader, philanthropist, and social entrepreneur Terry Kassel; the writer and translator Hillel Halkin; and the Israeli journalist and media personality Sivan Rahav Meir.
Introducing Kassel, whom he called a “trailblazer for women in the financial world” on account of her positions as global head of human resources for Merrill Lynch and current head of strategic human resources for the $51 billion hedge fund Elliot Investment Management, Koret Distinguished Fellow Daniel Gordis noted that Kassel, “a thinker but also an inveterate doer,” is “widely considered one of the boldest investors in the Jewish and Israel space, and the philanthropist to watch for insights into risks worth taking, projects worth taking on, and people worth investing in.”
The co-founder of Start-Up Nation Central, a nonprofit that introduces the world to Israeli innovation, and of the Jewish Food Society, which preserves and revitalizes Jewish culinary heritage, Kassel is also a trustee of the Paul E. Singer Foundation, which she has helped build into a philanthropic powerhouse in the Jewish world and beyond. For nearly a decade, the foundation has also been a key investor in high-impact projects at Shalem. Given her remarkable sense of curiosity and “her belief in the power of ideas and education,” said Gordis, it is only natural that she was drawn to the vision of Shalem and “instinctively understood the value of a college in the service of the Jewish state.”
Accepting the college medallion, Kassel described a Shalem education as “applied liberal arts,” or learning designed to empower citizens to make a tangible contribution to the world. “It is essential that your four years at Shalem is not just an academic exercise,” she said, encouraging the graduating class to “look to the wisdom of the ages to solve the problems of the modern world and to understand [your] role as leaders within it.”
Hevroni introduced the ceremony’s second honorary-degree recipient, the writer, translator, biographer, and philologist Hillel Halkin, who opened his speech to students by recalling his own graduation from Columbia College sixty-two years ago. In the decades since, Halkin said, much has changed, but human nature has not: “The human condition in the mystery that we call the universe has remained the same. The great works of art and thought that deal with this condition have remained the same. Their everlasting value to humanity has remained the same… The ideal of a liberal arts education based on them has remained the same.” Explaining that at the time of his own graduation, no one doubted that a higher education could exist without the liberal arts—without The Odyssey, The Iliad, Plato, Aristotle, Shakespeare, Dante, Bach, and of course the Hebrew Bible—Halkin lamented that the forces of an all-consuming capitalism, post-industrial technology, deconstructionist academic theories that scoff at eternal values and universal truths, and the “wokeness” of American culture that can’t dismiss Western cultural heritage too soon, have combined to undercut the importance of such an education to the modern world. “At such a moment,” concluded Halkin, “along comes Shalem and creates a liberal arts college in Israel… a country in which the idea of the liberal arts college never struck root.” This, he concluded with admiration, “called for daring and vision.”
The third recipient of an honorary degree, Sivan Rahav Meir, explained what she had learned from her long career as a television and radio journalist, which has brought her into contact with the country’s leading politicians and public figures. “Ultimately, people want a ‘zoom out’” from current events, she said. “They want to be part of something bigger, to see their place in a much longer and more important story.” At the same time, Rahav-Meir—whose weekly lectures on the Torah portion are watched or heard by tens of thousands of people in Israel and around the world—stressed that people “also want a ‘zoom in’: a nourishment of the spirit” and an exploration of the human condition. Both of these approaches, she concluded, characterize a Shalem education, which is more vital than ever in today’s media- and content-saturated society.
Students also heard from Shalem Prof. Yemima Ben-Menahem, a scholar of the philosophy of science and 2022 Israel Prize Laureate. Stating that “the biggest debate today is the one about truth: Are there objective truths in science, history, and morality, or merely interpretations and subjective perspectives?” she continued that she believed that “there is truth and there is falsehood, there is good and evil, but there is also a voice that insists that everything is relative, and it has existed since ancient times. All of you,” she charged, “will have to carry on the timeless work on standing up for what you know is right.”
It’s a task that the graduates seemed more than eager to take up, as evidenced by the words of its student representative, Yoni Kurtz ’22. Insisting that everything he and his fellow graduates had learned won’t remain in the classroom, but rather will lead them “to ask every kind of question that can be asked, from the kind of life worth living to how to resolve the tension between the Jewish and Western traditions,” he also offered an answer to the question with which every Shalem student is familiar: What will you do with a liberal arts degree?
“We will be critical, creative, and free thinkers,” he stated. “And we will make a difference in every area of society.”
And with that, caps were thrown into the air—and Shalem’s sixth academic class was off to make good on that promise.