Shalem College
April 15, 2019

The Stories We Tell: Shalem Launches Unique Pilot Program in Zionist Education

The Stories We Tell: Shalem Launches 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.

On Israeli campuses no less than American ones, the conversation surrounding Zionism is often reduced to slogans or to heated, vapid arguments about current events. Almost entirely absent is the historical context, the moral imperatives, and the big ideas that once animated the discourse about Jewish sovereignty and the character of the Jewish state. This, then, is the challenge facing an educational institution that believes that the study of the ideas and principles underlying Jewish statehood is vital to the survival of the Jewish national project. How to do so in a way that is both nuanced—and unapologetic? How to acknowledge the complexity of Israel’s story, while still retaining the spirit of a movement and of a people who, against all odds, made a home for the Jewish people “no dream”?

For the leadership of Shalem College, the challenge was an opportunity. “We decided to try and create a model for Zionist education whose pedagogy works to forge a community around shared beliefs, while at the same time encouraging a range of different viewpoints,” explains Dr. Ido Hevroni, Shalem’s educational director. “And what better place to start—here and everywhere—than with texts themselves? Both the ones that inspired our collective story, and the ones that make us stop and reflect on it.”

The result was “The Israel Story,” an innovative four-part study-and-event series launched this past December through a generous gift from the Asper Foundation. “The Israel Story” brings public figures and thinkers from across the religious and political spectrum to Shalem to speak about a book that students have read in advance, and which “best tells the story of Israel, in his or her opinion,” explains Hevroni. But first, students speak about the book in small, moderated discussion groups—a format designed to put students at ease, as much as to engender participation.

If the first event in the series, featuring acclaimed author and educator Dr. Micha 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 the evening’s organizer. “Students felt free to voice their opinions on Herzl’s arguments, even his writing style—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 thus far have included Israeli author Gail Hareven, winner of the prestigious Sapir Prize for Literature, who spoke about the book Astonishment by Aharon Appelfeld, and the acclaimed author and Israel Prize winner A.B. Yehoshua, who spoke about his own book, the intergenerational Jewish-family saga Mr. Mani. “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.

In May, Bilha Ben Eliyahu will complete the series with a lecture on Amos Oz’s A Tale of Love and Darkness. Ben Eliyahu, a lecturer at several institutions of higher education in Jerusalem, is best known as the host of a popular literary program on Kol Israel Radio.