Shalem College
October 13, 2020

The Corona Class: Geographically Diverse, Civic-Minded, and Committed to Study and Service

The Corona Class: Geographically Diverse, Civic-Minded, and Committed to Study and Service

They set aside plans for post-army trips and took entrance exams online. They attended a digital open house and interviewed by Zoom. They worried about what their college experience would look like, and then decided to take the plunge. They are Shalem’s Corona Class: Defined at first by circumstance, but then by courage—the courage, that is, to meet uncertainty with the conviction that a Shalem education, in any form, remains the best path to gaining knowledge, building character, and influencing their society and state.

The 50 students starting studies at Shalem this October come from every corner of the country; indeed, for the first time, a full quarter of incoming students are from the periphery, including communities in the Negev and Galilee. Strikingly, a full 100 percent of students completed either military or national service, with 14 students serving in elite combat or intelligence units—several times higher than the national average. Moreover, in keeping with Shalem students’ commitment both to ongoing learning and to their local and national communities, 29 percent of students studied at a pre-army leadership academy that combines studies in Jewish and Israeli identity and Zionism with intensive volunteerism.

Finally, 10 percent of the incoming chose to precede their military service with a shnat sherut (“service year”), a prestigious program of full-time, unpaid community service in development towns and disadvantaged communities; residential schools for youth at risk; and other civic organizations and projects.

“Looking at the numbers alone, you would hardly know that the world has undergone a major upheaval. The class of 2024 looks almost identical to its predecessors, which is to say, a group of exceptionally bright and committed young Israelis from all backgrounds, regions of the state, and walks of life,” says Daniel Polisar, Shalem’s executive vice president. “They are precisely the sort of individuals capable of rising to the challenge that the COVID pandemic presents to their educational experience, and making of it an opportunity for personal and intellectual growth.”

Citing creative recruitment activities, such as a digital open house replete with a filmed seminar, surveys, and quizzes about the topics of study at Shalem, as a factor in the college’s ability to recruit a full, indisputably impressive class in the current climate, Polisar nonetheless insists that credit for much of the year’s admissions results is largely the result of long-standing, strategic efforts to reach the country’s most talented students, wherever they may be.

“We made a decision to intensify our outreach in those areas of the country, namely the North and South, which until now were less commonly seen in Shalem’s applicant pool,” explains Polisar. “As a college dedicated to the service of the nation, it is only appropriate that our student body reflect the geographic diversity of that state. The fact that a full 25 percent of the incoming class hails from the periphery is especially remarkable given that this is a much higher percentage than that found at institutions of higher education in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv that have been trying to recruit students from the periphery for decades. It is,” he concludes, “a testament to the success of our efforts and an important step forward for our vision of a college of and for the State of Israel.”

Beyond the numbers, the members of the Class of 2024 demonstrate a range of interests and chosen methods of impact. Two students, for example, were counselors in Krembo Wings, Israel’s youth movement for children and youth with special needs, while two others were active in LEAD, an elite program that empowers Israeli youth to study, initiate, and advance leadership activities across every sector of society. There is one national chess champion among the class’s ranks, a graduate of the selective Bronfman Fellowship program, and a participant in Merchavim, a program to engender a stronger civil society through shared Jewish-Arab artistic creation. Another incoming student was a member of Israel’s Model UN delegation to Berlin, another a volunteer for Project TEN, a program of the Jewish Agency to foster relations between Israeli and Diaspora Jewish youth, and another, Gordon Tchelet, a counselor in the Agency’s Partnership2gether Peoplehood Platform in Chicago.

Tchelet explains that he was drawn to Shalem precisely because it combines the American model of broad-based education with an emphasis on Jewish, Israeli, and Middle Eastern identity and culture—that, and on account of Shalem’s intimate community and small class sizes.

“I chose Shalem because, most of all, I wanted to learn how to be a powerful thinker. I believe that the humanities are the best tool for learning how to think, how to write, and how to speak in ways that persuade others. When you can do those things, the sky’s the limit,” says Tchelet, who goes on to say that he, himself, has been influenced by the thinking, writing, and speaking of the best—namely, Shalem faculty members. “I’ve followed the work of several faculty members for years now and have been influenced by much of it, so I’m especially eager to learn with them. I’m excited by the fact that Shalem’s size allows for real and meaningful interaction between teachers and students.”

Incoming freshman Tzivia Guggenheim, who participated in several international programs for outstanding high-school history students, echoed Gordon’s sentiments. “I liked the idea of studying a wide range of subjects that would together provide a foundation for a career in the public sphere,” she explained. “The fact that Shalem’s Core Curriculum focuses on Israeli and Jewish identity as well as on Muslim culture will hopefully improve my ability to effect real change in Israeli society.”

“By choosing to begin their studies at Shalem this year, this class has expressed its confidence in our ability to deliver on our promise of a transformative education, despite the restrictions with which we have to contend,” says Polisar. “And we intend to reward their confidence in us by exceeding all expectations.”