May 28, 2024

Largest-Ever Freshman Class Concludes a Year of Study and War

Theo Brand ’27

For many Israeli twenty-somethings, hatiyul hagadol (“the Big Trip”) is a rite of passage: a way to air out and readjust to the world after mandatory military service. Yet even by Israeli standards, few take the term quite as literally as Shalem freshman Theo Brand. After six years in the army—part of which he spent as a commando in the special-forces unit Egoz—Brand left for a bicycle trip across Iceland (“I went with nothing but the clothes I was wearing and what could fit in a backpack,” he recalls. “It meant I could be open to anything.”). He then traveled through Europe, the Indian and Nepalese Himalayas, and even fit in a stint as a corn harvester in Texas before moving on to rural Mexico. It was while hiking in Patagonia, he explains, that he first considered a college degree.

“For years I’d been traveling to new places, and while I’d learned an incredible amount, I realized I was missing the kind of depth that constant movement doesn’t allow,” explains Brand, who jokes that his background may also have been catching up with him: The great-grandson of founding members of the Jezreel Valley’s Kibbutz Ein Harod, Brand is the fourth generation of his family to call the kibbutz home. “I wanted to go deeper with my learning and commit to studying a subject on its own terms. Someone suggested a Zen or Dao monastery,” Brand remembers with a smile, “but I’m glad I found my way to Shalem instead.”

Brand is among the 73 students now completing their freshman year at Shalem, making them the largest academic class since the college’s opening eleven years ago. The class was also the most geographically diverse, with a majority hailing from the country’s Central, Northern, and Southern Districts and nearly 20 percent from Israel’s geographic peripheries.

Roni Svisa ’27

“This cohort further cemented our goal of reflecting the full spectrum of Israeli society,” notes Senior Vice President Seth Goldstein. “They are a sign that the college has entered a new phase: We are now truly a national institution, successfully attracting the most outstanding candidates the entire country has to offer.”

Like all the classes before it—and arguably to an even greater degree—this cohort, too, was a mix of top academic performance and commitment to service and citizenship. Nearly all students, for instance, spent at least one year in a pre-military educational or volunteering framework, and their numbers include the largest-ever percentage of IDF commanders and officers, many of whom served in elite commando and intelligence units.

Which, during a year defined by war, meant that many freshmen came to Shalem straight from the front lines.

For example, Roni Svisa ‘27, an operations officer for the southern Gaza Envelope, spent months after the Hamas attack on October 7th liaising between the army and the region’s residents, arranging for security for farmers who needed to work their land, evacuees who needed to access their homes, and, most difficult of all, residents who needed to bury their loved ones in local cemeteries. When she was able to begin her studies at Shalem in late January, she found it “an important part of the healing process” and critical to her transition back to civilian life.

“Reading and discussing great texts in depth has helped me and my classmates process what we’ve all been going through,” she says. “The students and lecturers have also been amazingly supportive.”

Brand seconds Svisa’s sentiment, explaining that as a combat soldier in the reserves, he couldn’t have asked for a more understanding faculty and administration, or one more committed to helping students transition from battlefield and classroom. “For so many of us at Shalem, the gap between what we had been experiencing in the war and what was happening on the home front felt unbridgeable,” says Brand. “So I asked Shalem leadership if I could organize something for combat soldiers on campus, and they offered to help in whatever way we needed. Once a week throughout both semesters, nearly 40 students met in small groups with a professional moderator to speak openly about what was weighing on us. I can’t imagine,” he concludes, “that any other place would have helped make that happen so fast.”

Svisa agrees, adding that whenever she speaks with friends at other universities, “they can’t believe how much personal attention everyone here gets. I try to explain that Shalem isn’t just a college, it’s also a community,” she concludes. Then she adds with a smile, “but until you’re a student at Shalem, you can’t really imagine what that means.”

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