February 7, 2024

The Learning Goes On: How Shalem Found Strength in its Learning Community

In a sermon he delivered at Oxford University at the start of World War Two, author C.S. Lewis addressed the feeling, common to many students, that learning had lost relevance in the light of current events. Conceding that “even if we ourselves should happen not to be interrupted by death or military service,” taking an interest in philosophy, history, literature, or science might seem unjustified “when the lives of our friends and the liberties of Europe are in the balance,” he nonetheless went on to provide an eloquent justification for the search for knowledge and beauty under the shadow of insecurity.

It was only fitting, then, that the now-classic text, which famously argued that “if men had postponed the search for knowledge and beauty until they were secure, the search would have never begun,” launched a series of enrichment courses Shalem offered in the first months of Israel’s war against Hamas, when the start of the academic year was still on hold.

“After we got over the initial shock and disbelief, Shalem leadership began talking about our responsibility to our students and our nation as an institution dedicated to liberal education,” explained Prof. Leon Kass, dean of the faculty at the college. “We agreed that if our aspiration is to provide an intellectual foundation for the next generation of Israeli leaders, that aspiration has become only more urgent after October 7th. It’s critical that Israel’s most influential citizens know who they are, why they’re here, and how, as Lewis put it, to avoid ‘substituting a worse cultural life for a better one.’ That’s precisely what our courses are designed to help them do.”

Dr. Eli Schonfield, chair of the Department of Philosophy and Jewish Thought, wholeheartedly agreed. He also added yet another dimension to the goal of learning in wartime, specific to wars fought in the digital age: “So much of the average citizen’s views on this war are shaped by the media, and in particular social media, for which complexity, depth, and nuance are sacrificed to the evil of clicks and views,” Schonfeld said. “We wanted to offer an alternative to the TikTok rhythm of the news cycle and enable students to engage in deep thought and conversation about what’s happening and why.”

The result was an ambitious program of non-credit-bearing courses, open to all students and alumni—and, as an extension of the Shalem community, to all lecturers and staff, as well—who wanted to “come together and try to make sense of this new world we inhabit, often by means of the great texts and ideas of the past,” said Kass. “Some students wanted to think about existential questions, while others were searching for geopolitical wisdom. Some lecturers took their cue from students, such as Prof. Arik Sadan [head of the Department of Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies], who heard that students wanted to understand Hamas’ ideology and offered to analyze the Hamas charter with them in the original Arabic,” Kass said. “Others, like Eli [Schonfeld], wanted to explore what thinkers such as Immanuel Kant had to say about waging war and making peace. He said that if even one student wanted to think through these concepts with him, he was committed to teaching the course.”

Fortunately, a lack of attendance was never a problem. Offered every day over four weeks, Shalem’s 21 mini courses were wildly popular among students—this, despite 60 percent of students called up for reserve duty, and the other 40 percent deeply involved in helping soldiers and evacuees. Explained Senior Vice President Seth Goldstein, “Students travelled from across the country to attend class. We even had students returning from the army on short breaks who would take a shower and then come straight to Shalem to take a course with their favorite lecturer.” Since all courses were also recorded, student reservists on the front lines could also watch when they had time, and in this way feel a part of the learning community.

One such reservist was Noam Orion, a junior in the Department of Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies who is serving near the border with Lebanon. Describing the learning as “an hour or two of normalcy in my week,” he explained that the experience “reminds me that there exists a world of mutual learning and shared space in Jerusalem”—a reminder, he adds, he found deeply comforting.

At the end of the first series—whose courses ranged from the Israel-U.S. alliance and radical Islam to a course on biblical portraits of evil taught by Kass himself—both students and lecturers had found the learning so meaningful that Shalem eagerly opened a second round. Notably, it was also a chance for President Russ Roberts to teach a course on “Jewish Prayer for Agnostics,” the subject of his forthcoming book.

As both the interest and participation in the enrichment courses made clear, Shalem students are not mainly interested in a degree. Nor, for that matter, is Shalem primarily interested in giving one. “We’re not here just to give credits toward a diploma. The in-person learning is the point,” Kass emphasized. That’s why, he went on to explain, although Israel’s other universities began their semester at the end of December, Shalem decided to delay the start of the year until after the first wave of reserve soldiers had been released. “We built a curriculum for a year, and then asked, when is the latest we can begin and still cover that material? This way,” he concludes, “we can offer the greatest number of students the transformative educational experience they came for, and which our seminars alone can provide.”

Offering that experience, though, will not be without its challenges. Therefore, together with the delayed start to the academic year, Shalem announced a broad array of accommodations to support students who will be returning from the battlefield, all of which are intended to ensure everyone who wishes to complete the academic year will have every possible chance to do so.

Looking ahead, Kass says that he believes Shalem’s wartime learning was valuable not only for those who were able to partake but also, in its own small way, for national morale. “No, our teaching does not contribute to the nation’s defense,” he concludes, “but learning for its own sake inspires people to remember why the nation is worth defending.”

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